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When John D. Rockefeller and his son founded the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, they established what would become one of the preeminent private philanthropic organizations in the world. With a charter establishing the goal of promoting “the well-being of mankind throughout the world”, the family-run Rockefeller Foundation has a long history of promoting medical and social research across the United States and around the world.
Almost from the Foundation’s beginning, the Foundation established science grants to research various public health issues and even provided funding for the American Red Cross to establish its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, along with establishing medical research programs to combat diseases such as hookworm and malaria, the early decades of the Foundation’s existence were also dedicated to funding eugenics research, both in the United States and in Germany.
During the 1930s, long after the rise of the Nazi regime and the recognized use of eugenics to demonize Jews and other minorities as “undesirables”, the Rockefeller Foundation provided funding that allowed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics to establish the scientific justification for Hitler’s racial policies. Under its director, Eugen Fischer, the Institute gained absolute control over all anthropology appointments throughout Germany and even organized "Racial Hygiene" courses that became mandatory for all SS doctors. If the Rockefeller Foundation had any misgivings about providing research funding to the Institute, they did't make them public (at first anyway).
Not that the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute depended exclusively on the Rockefeller Foundation’s funding, mind you. With generous grants from Germany’s Ministry of the Interior and the Prussian Welfare Ministry, the Institute was able to launch what would be their most ambitious research project under their star researcher, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer. A rising star in human genetics research, Verschuer would eventually become the director of the Institute in 1942 as well as being the undisputed leader in twin research. Ironically, one of the other star researchers of the Institute, Franz Kallmann felt obliged by 1936 to interrupt his own research to emigrate to the United States (he was half-Jewish).
Though studies comparing racial differences in IQ and other measures of intelligence were already on the decline in most places, the Rockefeller Foundation shifted its focus towards using research on identical and fraternal twins to resolve the longstanding question of nature versus nurture. With thousands of twin pairs in his sample pool, all found through public school records, Verschuer and his research team examined the role that heredity played in personality, especially “criminal personality” traits.
But Verschuer’s research ambitions took him in a far more unethical direction. Arranging for hundreds of his twin-paired subjects to be admitted to a Berlin hospital facility, Verschuer’s research methods became far more invasive. In a 1935 report to the Rockefeller Foundation, the then-director of the Institute described Verschuer’s research examining how twins responded to medications such as atropine, pilocarpine, adrenaline, and histamine. All the while, Verschuer and his research assistants measured the school-aged test subjects on different physiological measures including heart rate, blood pressure, saliva, etc. Again, nobody seemed to have any objections to Verschuer and his fellow researchers subjecting school-aged children to high levels of potentially dangerous drugs. It was all for science, after all.
By showing that identical twins had much more similar reactions that fraternal twins did, Verschuer hoped to demonstrate the importance of heredity in human physiology. Whether or not Verschuer actually got informed consent from the parents of his research subjects is debatable but the Rockefeller Foundation raised no real objection at the time. While he was pursuing his research, Otmar Verschuer was also building up his influence in the Nazi-controlled scientific community. He founded a professional journal titled Der Erbartz (The Genetics Doctor) which became required reading for doctors throughout Nazi-controlled Europe, as well as being the primary venue for publishing much of the Institute's research.
The journal did far more than publicize research studies however. Through its editorials, Verschuer was able to spread his eugenics and racial ideas far and wide. This included recommendations on sterilization for "unfit" individuals and the need to create a superior race through selective breeding. As he rose in influence, the Nazi regime conferred more responsibility on Verschuer. That included participating in the mass sterilizaation campaign that began with the passage of the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. Under the new law, mandatory sterilization for people suffering from chronic mental illness, alcoholism, physical disabilities, epilepsy, "feeblemindedness", and alcoholism was ordered by special courts. An estimated 400,000 Germans were sterilized under the program.
Despite concerns raised by international observers, eugenicists raised few objections - especially since similar sterilization policies were already in place across many other countries (incluing the United States and Canada). It was only when the United States declared war on Germany in 1941 that the Rockefeller finally stopped funding Verschuer's work. The loss of Rockefeller funding had little real effect on his research however. With the retirement of Eugen Fischer in 1942, Otmar von Verschuer took over as the head of the Institute and his research efforts intensified. This research was aided by Verschuer's chief acolyte, Dr. Josef Mengele. Earning a doctorate in anthropology with his thesis titled, ""Racial Morphological Research on the Lower Jaw Section of Four Racial Groups", Mengele went on to get a second doctorate in medicine. Assigned to work with Verschuer in 1937, Mengele quickly found him to be the perfect mentor. Along with fostering his research, Verschuer also had the inside track on the various Nazi eugenics programs, including Aktion T4, which helped set the stage for the Final Solution that would follow. Mengele's association with Verschuer also meant that Mengele was able to get in on the ground floor of the ambitious plan to establish extermination camps across occupied Europe.
As one of the elite members of the SS medical corps, Mengele's quickly rose to his new position as Hauptsturmführer. His diligence and the endorsement of his research provided by Verschuer led to his being appointed camp physician to the concentration camp at Auschwitz in May of 1943. With countless prisoners at his disposal, Mengele was able to provided Verschuer with all the research subjects he could possibly want (and with no pesky informed consent concerns, either).
Even compared to the other death camps, Auschwitz stood out for the sheer brutality of treatment prisoners received and the appalling conditions that often claimed as many lives as the gas chambers themselves. With funding arranged by Verschuer , Mengele was able to launch the research that would by almost unparalleled in the annals of savagery. Building up a reputation for cold-bloodedness that even stood out among SS officers, Mengele would routinely send prisoners to their deaths in the gas chambers and eventually became the ultimate authority at Auschwitz concerning matters of life and death. Just days after his arrival at Auschwitz, he dealt with a typhus epidemic by ordering a thousand infected Gypsies to be sent to the gas chambers while sparing many of the German prisoners who were also infected.
The various stories surrounding Mengele's cruelties and how he was despised even by his fellow doctors are legendary. Smartly dressed in his SS uniform, Mengele would cheerfully decide on who would live or die. This cheerful demeanor would continue unless anyone dared to question his decision or if prisoners attempted to escape. As Olga Lengyel would later say of him:
How we despised his detached, haughty air, his continual whistling, his frigid cruelty. Day after day he was at his post, watching the pitiful crowd of men and women and children go struggling past, all in the last stages of exhaustion from the inhuman journey in the cattle trucks. He would point with his cane at each person and direct them with one word: "right" or "left." He seemed to enjoy his grisly task.
But it was Mengele's research, conducted with the full support of Ottmar von Verschuer, that truly became the stuff of nightmares. His research program at Auschwitz was twofold: genetics research and germ warfare. In the germ experiments, Mengele would inject one twin with infectious strains. If that twin died (or simply showed interesting pathology), he would then "sacrifice" the other twin to compare their anatomy during autopsy. Along with blood samples, Mengele also supplied Verschuer with a full range of other tissue samples including eyes and body parts. Mengele didn't seem to show the slightest hesitation in carrying out any bizarre research that crossed his mind (all with Verschuer's apparent blessing), whether it involved dissecting live infants, castrating "inferior" men and boys - without bothering with an anesthetic, or using electric shock to "test" the endurance of men and women in the prison. He even used high-intensity x-rays to sterilize a group of Polish nuns, inflicting horrible burns in the process.
Not that he did all the research himelf alone, of course. Since many of the inmates were physicians themelves, Mengele was in a good position to force them to conduct much of the research, collect results, conduct autopsies, and even to write the papers he published (it's not as if Mengele was obliged to share credit with them).
To be continued
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