The Twin Doctor (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

Josef Mengele didn't do 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).   Mengele had a particular fascination with eye colour and collected eye pairs as a way of discovering how to change eye colour.    On one occasion, he killed an entire Gypsy family to send their eyes to Verschuer's research assistant, Karin Magnussen, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.

Whatever his scientific pretenses however, Mengele was in the business of mass murder, first and always.   Even when the crematoria were strained to capacity, Mengele simply ordered a series of trenches to be dug and then filled with gasoline which was  ignited.    He then had prisoners thrown in, living or dead, so that their bodies could be completely consumed by the fire.   Some prisoners, including children, were tossed directly into the firepits from the back of dump trucks.

As for Ottmar von Verschuer, he conducted his own research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in Berlin, often with the research materials provided by his former student.   Since war conditions blocked more conventional avenues for twin research, Mengele's contributions allowed Verschuer to compile an impressive collection of human body parts.  

In one glowing progress report to his Nazi superiors, Verschuer wrote:

My assistant Dr. Dr. Mengele is another contributor who has joined this research project. He was posted to the Auschwitz concentration camp as an SS captain and camp physician. With approval of the Reich leader SS, he has conducted anthropological research on various racial groups in the camp, and has transmitted blood samples to my laboratory for testing.

With the tissue samples taken from Jewish and Gypsy twins, Verschuer continued his research and the impact it had on Nazi eugenics policies was profound.  In his writings, Verschuer highlighted the political justification for eugenics and his support for the Nazi Final Solution.   "Biological heredity," he wrote, "is certainly a destiny, and accordingly, we prove ourselves masters of this destiny insofar as we take biological heredity to be the task that has been assigned to us and which we must fulfill."   His research into the high correlation in diseases such as tuberculosis in fraternal and identical twins (reinforced by research material received from Mengele and other Nazi camp doctors) established him as a leading authority, even after the outbreak of World War II.   

By the end of World War II however, things became very different.   The gruesome details surrounding  Nazi experimentation became widely known through the evidence presented at the Nuremberg trials.   While Josef Mengele managed to escape to exile in South America, many of his Nazi SS medical colleagues faced Allied justice.   In the 1946 Doctors' Trial alone, twenty-three defendants (mostly medical doctors) stood trial withn seven receiving death penalties while others received lengthy sentences.  

Despite the best efforts of the chief Allied investigator, Dr. Leo Alexander, however,   Ottmar von Verschuer managed to avoid being implicated in the Nazi extermination campaign.    At the time, there were numerous rumours of the gruesome collection of research materials provided to Verschuer by Mengele and other doctors but Alexander and his fellow investigators were unable to find it.    In a letter he wrote to his wife, Alexander wrote:

It sometimes seems as if the Nazis had taken special pains in making practically every nightmare come true. Some new evidence has come in where two doctors in Berlin, one a man and the other a woman, collected eyes of different colour. It seems that the concentration camps were combed for people whose one eye had a slightly different color than the other. Who ever [sic] was unlucky enough to possess such a pair of slightly unequal eyes had them cut out and was killed, the eyes being sent to Berlin. This is the carrying out into reality of an old gruesome German fairy tale which is included in the Tales of Hoffmann, where Dr Coppelius posing as a sandman comes at night and cuts out children's eyes when they are tired. The grim part of the story is that Doctors von Verschuer and [Karin] Magnussen in Berlin did prefer children and particularly twins. There is no end to this nightmare, at least 23 are being tried now and, I trust, the others will follow later.

With no sign of the incriminating collection (which Verschuer had likely destroyed), gathering hard evidence against Verschuer was next to impossible.   All the Allied forces could manage was a relatively benign "denazification" hearing which forced Verschuer to pay a fine of 600 Reichsmark before releasing him from custody.     By moving himself and his files into Western Germany, Verschuer attempted to ride out the animosity he often encountered due to his Nazi leanings.   While he attempted to reopen the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, his request was denied due to his former role in the Nazi party.  The Institute was eventually reopened and renamed the Max Planck Society in 1948.                        

Undaunted, Verschuer joined the Institute of Genetics at the University of Munster in 1950.   Eventually becoming dean, he went on to become a highly respected geneticist with honorary memberships in numerous scientific societies such as Italian Society of Genetics, the Anthropological Society of Vienna, and the Japanese Society for Human Genetics.  Along with many other of his fellow researchers at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Verschuer had successfully reinvented himself as a geneticist instead of a eugenicist (which was suddenly a taboo subject given the revelations of the Nuremberg trials).  

Despite this setback, Verschuer managed to maintain contacts with numerous American eugenicists who were facing a similar need to "reinvent" themselves.    This included his former Institute colleague, Franz Kalllmann,  who had founded the American Society of Human Genetics.   Many of his more notorious associations, including his research with Mengele was succesfully hidden during his lifetime.    Even following his death in 1969, his obituary only described his scientific achievements with no mention of his Nazi connections.  

Much of this scientific legacy later unravelled as further revelations surrounding Josef Mengele, who managed to remain hidden in South American until his death in 1979, came to light.   Many of the organizations that had formerly supported his research found their own reputations damaged by the connection to Verschuer and Mengele.   The Max Planck Society, now recognizied as one of of the leading scientific organizations in the world has struggled to overcome the Nazi legacy.     Even the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded much of Verschuer's pre-war research into eugenics,  continues to resist attempts by journalists to explore their former connections to Nazi research.   

Though decades have passed since the era of Ottmar von Verschuer and Josef Mengele, those few survivors who witnessed their research firsthand still remember what they endured.    Modern medical historians agree that Mengele's research had no real scientific value although rumours of his research activities during his long exile in South America still circulate.    His main legacy today seems to be as a stereotypical "mad scientist" in books and movies such as The Boys From Brazil.      As for his mentor, Verschuer, his later work continues to be cited by modern geneticists (particularly his twin studies) although the Nazi connections he concealed for so long are finally being revealed.    

While eugenics has become a byword for evil, largely due to the actions of people like Verschuer and Mengele, but also due to homegrown attempts at "weeding out" inferior genes such as widespread sterilization of people deemed to be unfit,  the battle is hardly over.   As genetic testing becomes more sophisticated, not to mention commercialized with the spread of genetic testing services such as 23andMe,  will the quest for "perfect" genes lead to Ottmar von Verschuer having the last laugh?






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