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Bad medicine

30 October 2008

The boundary between doing no harm and participating in state-sponsored crime can be a murky area for doctors, a theme to be explored through a forum at the Jewish Holocaust Centre.

Why do some doctors do good while others do evil?

A new exhibition at the Jewish Holocaust Centre raises this potent question, presenting disturbing images of the clinical experiments carried out by Nazi doctors on concentration camp prisoners.

In the most prominent example of doctors supporting state control during the 20th century, the experiments included: those where prisoners were subjected to hypothermia, during which many died; experiments where twins were studied under torturous circumstances and then killed and dissected; and those where prisoners were infected with devastating diseases such as malaria.

Dr Josef Mengele, the most infamous perpetrator of these experiments, did not work alone. In contravention of medical ethics, including international agreements such as the Geneva Convention to which Germany was a signatory, doctors killed countless victims and left others with permanent damage to body, mind and soul.

"The Nuremberg Trials highlighted that the medical profession is very vulnerable, either because members volunteer their services in an effort to support despotic regimes, or because they're coerced to provide their services," says Professor Leon Piterman, Senior Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, who has convened a forum to accompany the exhibition – Nazi Medicine: the role of health professionals as agents of state control, then and now.

"Doctors may be overtly complicit, or they may be covertly complicit, in the sense that they're working in institutions where various crimes are being committed against individuals, such as in asylums, but they remain silent."

Co-hosted with the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at the Jewish Holocaust Centre, the forum will bring together health professionals with a range of insights into this issue on the afternoon of Sunday 23 November. Speakers include a psychologist who has had professional contact with survivors of torture in South America, Africa and elsewhere, an ethicist, and an expert in health law.

Professor Chris Goddard, Director of the Faculty's Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia, will speak about the rights of children in detention, touching on material from his dramatic new book Human Rights Overboard.

"The Nazis were not alone in enlisting or coercing health professionals to engage in acts of torture to meet the goals of the State," says Professor Piterman.

"State-sponsored torture with medical assistance has occurred since the end of the Nazi regime and still occurs today. During the cold war it emerged that there were a number of psychiatrists in the Soviet Union who were certifying political activists as being criminally insane. There's also documented evidence of similar things happening in Chile and Argentina and other places, but health professionals may have also played a role passively in a number of detention centres, where, despite their best efforts to help people in detention, they were observers of various forms of punishment and deprivation  without blowing the whistle for fear of recrimination," says Professor Piterman.

The most obvious case of detention-related violence is that of Steve Biko, the South African anti-Apartheid leader who was brutally bashed by police and then, when unconscious, was certified by a doctor as fit to travel hundreds of kilometres in the back of a truck to a prison hospital, where he soon died.

"Health professionals may be coerced to support State sponsored torture. In science you also have this dilemma. There are scientists who have been accused during the Saddam regime of supporting the development of chemical weapons. But did they do it voluntarily? Were they paid to do it? Did they do it under threat to them or their families if they didn't participate? It's often very hard to disentangle these issues.

"One of the claims that constantly made by Nazis standing trial at Nuremberg was that they were acting under orders. They were working in circumstances of war and did what they were told. Yet some stood up against the regime. Some were principled."

Nazi Medicine: the role of health professionals as agents of state control, then and now.

Date: 23 November 2008
Time: 1:30pm – 5pm
Venue: Smorgon Auditorium of the Jewish Holocaust Centre, 13-15 Selwyn Street Elsternwick
Tickets: $25 adult/professional, $15 student/concession
Contact: +61 3 9528 1985 or

Learn more about Human Rights Overboard by Linda Briskman, Susie Latham, and Chris Goddard.


Nazi medicine experiment – Dachau

Victim of a medical experiment immersed in freezing water at the Dachau concentration camp.
Dachau, Germany, between August 1942 and May 1943. Yad Vashem photo.


  • Professor Leon Piterman, Senior Deputy Dean, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Head of the School of Primary Health Care.


  • Professor Paul Komesaroff, physician and ethicist with the Monash Centre for Ethics in Medicine and Society.
  • Associate Professor Harry Minas, expert in transcultural psychiatry and Director of the Centre for International Mental Health, University of Melbourne.
  • Professor Ian Freckleton: Adjunct Professor of Law and Forensic Medicine, Monash University.
  • Professor Chris Goddard: Director of Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia, Monash University, and co-author of Human Rights Overboard.
  • Dr Ida Kaplan: Psychologist, Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture
  • Dr George Halasz: Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and honorary senior lecturer, Monash University.
  • Survivors of torture from Germany and Chile.