“Useless Lives” – the Dark Story of MS and the Nazis

At the start of the UK Disability History Month, let us not forget…

By Rachel Horne

I never thought I would end up writing the words Nazi and multiple sclerosis in the same sentence. 

Then I went to Auschwitz. 

After passing under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei “Work Sets You Free” gate, our group followed the tour guide into Block 5. There inside the dim, low-ceilinged room, I was confronted with a glass case piled high with artificial limbs, canes and crutches – all that was left of the disabled prisoners after being sent to the gas chambers.

I choked back a sob (I’m only human, after all) and listened as our guide explained that during WWII the Nazis murdered an estimated 350,000 disabled people in Germany and in its occupied territories. He also pointed out the disabled were the first to be mass exterminated in gas chambers – predating the murder of the Jews by two years.

Back in the UK, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had seen and heard in that grim room. I also – for obvious reasons – began to wonder what was the experience of people with MS during the twelve years (1933-45) the Third Reich was in power. How were they treated? Were they singled out?

I decided to find out. I knew it was going to be grim (it was), but also shocking. 

I discovered one of Germany’s most prominent and internationally known neurologists deliberately tried to infect his patients with MS – resulting in two deaths. I also learned MS was used as a plotline in a highly successful Nazi film to convince the German people to accept the involuntary killing of the disabled. The film is still banned from public viewing to this day.

But first, let’s look at the subject of coerced human medical experiments. For many years, it was believed these were carried out by a handful of rogue doctors working in isolation in concentration camps – far outside the mainstream of German medicine. Think of Josef Mengele and his twin experiments.

But recent research has challenged that, according to Paul Weindling, Professor in the History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes University. It turns out forced experiments on humans carried out by physicians was much more common than earlier believed and that it occurred all over – including at renowned academic research institutions.

One of the most notorious examples involved Georg Schaltenbrand – an eminent neurologist who was known as the “MS Pope” – because of his expertise. After training in the Netherlands, Harvard University and Beijing as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow, Schaltenbrand returned to Germany in 1934 and set up a neurology clinic at the prestigious University of Würzburg. Over the following decades, his reputation grew due to his ground-breaking work on the motor system, stereotaxy and MS.

As did the honours. Schaltenbrand became chairman – and later honorary chairman – of the German Society of Neurology and in 1953 he took over the chairmanship of the Medical Advisory Board of the German MS Society. When he turned 80, a bronze bust of his head was placed in the University of Wurzberg Neurological Clinic foyer – in recognition of his services to medicine. A year later he died – his reputation gloriously intact.

But there was another side to Schaltenbrand – one he kept deeply hidden. In 1937, he joined the Nazi Party. Then in early 1940, he conducted a series of experiments on mentally disabled patients in an attempt to prove his theory that MS was an infectious disease triggered by a virus or bacteria.

In the spring 1940, Schaltenbrand selected a total of 50 patients: sixteen from his MS clinic in Wurzberg, while the rest – termed verblodete Menschen (imbeciles) – came from the nearby Schloss Werneck – a psychiatric clinic. These included an “idiot” child and a sexual criminal who had recently been castrated.

Schaltenbrand first extracted cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from his MS patients and injected it into laboratory monkeys. He then took spinal fluid from the primates and injected it into the Werneck patients (at the back of their brains) – hoping this would cause MS. Instead two of his patients died. He quickly dissected them – eager to examine their spinal tissue.

“He treated patients as if they were expendable and on the same level as experimental animals,” writes Weindling, in his book, Victims and Survivors of Human Experiments: Science and Suffering in the Holocaust.

Despite these setbacks, Schaltenbrand was keen to carry out more experiments. But he was thwarted. For one thing, he found it difficult to find more monkeys (it was the war after all). Then in October 1940, all 800 patients from the institute in Werneck, including his patients, were transferred to killing sites and murdered – in line with the Nazi’s secret programme to euthanise anyone with a disability.

In 1943, Schaltenbrand published his experiments in a monograph “The Multiple Sclerosis of Man.” In it, he alluded to the unethical nature of his experiments, but wrote: “I believe that I can bear the responsibility of making such experiments on people who suffer from an incurable total dementia.”

It is worth remembering the “Schaltenbrand experiments” were funded by the German Research Foundation and were carried out at the University of Würzburg and the Werneck clinic – involving the complicity of hospital and institution staff.

After the war, Schaltenbrand briefly lost his position at the university due to his experiments. However, he was soon rehabilitated by his medical colleagues who argued that his work was conducted for “healing purposes.” A stellar career followed and he died in 1979 – his reputation gloriously intact.

It was only after his death did Schaltenbrand’s role in these experiments come to light – due to a 1994 article in Neurology written by neurologists Michael Shevell and Bradley Evans. In 1996, a German television program “Doctors without a Conscience” went further – featuring Schaltenbrand, his war-time experiments and his Nazi links. 

So successful had the professor been in covering up his past that his daughter was stunned when she saw a photo of her late father in his SS uniform. “An ideal family world collapses this evening,” wrote her husband – himself a professor – in a blog post.

Since then, the fallout has been swift. The bronze bust of Schaltenbrand in the foyer of the University of Würzburg Neurological Clinic was quietly removed – and any links to the professor now reference his infamous experiments. 

But in all this, let us not forget the real victims here: the coerced patients who suffered at the hands of Schaltenbrand. We do not know their names, their life stories, their ethnicity or even if their families were aware of what happened to them during the final months before their death. All we know is their fate.

And this is not unique to the Schaltenbrand experiments. As Weindling points out, no list exists of the names of the coerced research victims during the war; nor does anyone know how many patients suffered at the hands of physicians – who turned their backs on healing and became destroyers. 

So this month, please spare a moment to remember. 

Schaltenbrand; image from the DGN.

Next: When the Nazis used MS to justify killing the disabled

About the author

Rachel Horne

13 comments

  • I think it would be better to avoid being euphamistic, the Nazis didn’t ‘euthanize’ the disabled, they murdered them. Indeed many Nazis said it was their use of euphamistic language that made the murder easier for them.

  • Another powerful post from you Rachael.
    Not an easy read, and Yes we need to remember. What I find most difficult is the insidious appeal of the rationale applied: that doing harm to those who are already ‘damaged goods’ is justified in the name of doing good.

  • Will be thinking about this for a long time.
    About Staff being complicit,
    I remember as a new Neuro floor nurse in 1982
    Heard about the Doctor who put the Patient in a hot tub of water to diagnose him.
    The patient was never the same.
    We Never Questioned Attending Doctors, Barely Spoke to them.
    Much later an elderly patient said “They’re just experimenting on old people “
    I shrugged it off.
    Many years later I wondered.
    Then I had My MS Study experiences.
    Well intentioned, Helpful to Science and Medicine.
    Voluntary.
    ? Unintended Consequences of this study?
    I know there were a few.
    Potentially Harmful or Not Helpful?
    Yes, of course.
    And yet, Nothing so Deeply Inhuman as what was done in the Death Camp MS Clinic.
    Incomprehensible.

  • This is really important to discuss. Even in 2000 his work on transmission of MS was being cited in “respectable” publications. We must keep these conversations going Lest we Forget or, even worse, Forgive these doctors.

    • Thanks for this. I can see it is not coming to London unfortunately.
      I did see that the Weiner Library in London put on a” Science + Suffering: Victims and Perpetrators of Nazi Human Experimentation” exhibition in May 2017 – based on Prof Weindling’s work – but I missed that as had no idea of the MS/Nazi connection.

  • ‘I accuse’ is a Nazi propoganda film made in 1941. To try and justify pro- euthanasia. About a doctor and his wife is diagnosed with MS.

  • Thank you for taking the time to write this. In the grand schemes of European war history this forms such a tiny part, it is pretty precious that we have access to it in here – hopefully never to be forgotten

    BW

    • I don’t consider animal work murdering, some may disagree, but I hope we can enjoy our Christmas break.:-)
      Oh you were talking about me 🙂

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