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The Skeleton in the Gas Chamber: Nazi Experiments and Eugenics

Updated on March 31, 2013

A SFW Introduction

The content of this article will be gruesome and unsympathetic towards those with a sensitive stomach -- you've been warned!

Recently, I did a paper in which I studied the legitimacy of Nazi experiments and Eugenics. I found the subject so fascinating that I did more digging by watching documentaries on YouTube and by doing more research online for my own personal interest (should I be concerned that I consider this a personal interest?). In any case, this article is going to be a brief explanation of all of the various types of experiments and studies that I found were prevalent during the Third Reich.

Sources will be cited in the last capsule, along with any other supplementary notes in case you're looking to learn more on your own.

The paper I wrote was a position paper, but in this article I aim to inform and not to criticize or yell out my opinion. I am seeking a subjective and clearly informative article that might be an interesting read. It's my hope that such research might inspire others to look into what I would consider to be one of the worst atrocities of a horrific group of people -- and that's really saying something (you thought concentration camps were bad?).

There are three major categories of Nazi experiments according to Baruch C. Cohen. Each capsule will offer a summary of each experiment within the three categories.

Enjoy! :)

Nazi freezing experiments.
Nazi freezing experiments. | Source

Medical/Military Experiments

These experiments were performed under the guise of being medically necessary. Many of the ideas for these studies arose from concerns about new injuries and dangerous situations Axis powers were facing during the war. Doctors and military men sought to solve these issues by using victimized test subjects to replicate situations to record reactions and find effective solutions.

Freezing: In these experiments, doctors were concerned with German pilots who were forced to abandon their aircraft and land in the North Sea, which was full of frozen water that could easily kill any soldier that dove into it. They studied the effects of such water by using prisoners as human guinea pigs. They would often put them into tanks of ice water for extended periods of time until they either shivered to death or nearly did. They were also known to put prisoners outside, naked, for hours on end until the same happened; they would either freeze to death or some close. Through doing these tests, Dr. Sigmund Rascher discovered that the length of time soldiers could last in the North Sea was a maximum of two hours.

His solution was an attempt to replicate the North Sea conditions in Dachau. He used over 300 prisoners, exposing them to livid temperatures and noting their shock and other responses from the cold.

Gruesome fact: Dr. Rascher's experiments were often interrupted by the screams of pai from the victims because of their severely frozen limbs.

A note from a commenter (thank you for more information! The more, the merrier!): " In the Ärzteprozeß the witness Hermann Becker-Freyseng said, that Rascher was inspired to his undercooling experiments by articles of Temple Fay. Indeed, in 1938 and 1939 Temple Fay in a US hospital had cooled down about a hundred cancer patients to temperatures far below 36 degrees (down to 24 degrees!). Fay published his experiments in 1941 in scientific journals."

"The rapid rewarming method (a water bath of 50 degree) was not the invention of Rascher, Holzlöhner and Finke but was suggested already 50 years before Raschers experiments by a Russian researcher called Lepinski."

High Altitude: Another experiment by Dr. Rascher sought to solve the problem of rescuing pilots from high altitudes. Again, he attempted to replicate the desired conditions through artificial means. In this case, this involved decompression chambers that would simulate the effects of high altitude. Victims were then studied and notes were taken on their physical status. Around 200 prisoners were tested, and 80 met a painful death while the other 120 were executed after the fact.

Gruesome fact: Dr. Rascher would often dissect the brains of LIVE patients in order to prove that high altitude sickness could be attributed to tiny air bubbles forming in the blood vessels of the subarachnoid part of the brain.

Sea Water: Dr. Hans Eppinger performed experiments on 90 Gypsies in Dachau that were tested on the potability of sea water. Unlucky prisoners were given tasteless sea water and unaltered sea water as their only source of liquids. His goal was to test whether or not the exclusiveness of this diet would cause severe physical symptoms that would eventually end in death in a week to two weeks. The results? Extreme dehydration that forced them to lick the floor in search for their fluid intake.

What happened to the Doctor?: Dr. Eppinger committed suicide by poison right before the Nuremberg Trials were scheduled.

Sulfanilamide: Gas gangrene was a major source of casualties to the German front between 1941 and 1943. This, coupled with war wounds, sparked an interest in chemotherapeutic studies as opposed to surgical solutions. Sulfanilamide offered for doctors a revolutionary treatment for wounds and infections that were running rampant during the war. Doctors would test their chemotherapeutic methods on prisoners by replicating war wounds on prisoners and then infecting them with various bacteria and shards of glass and splinters of wood. Blood vessels were even tied off to replicate war wounds, in order to test new methods to be later used on soldiers.

The aftermath: Some of the survivors of these atrocities testified at the Nuremburg trials by showing the audience and jury the injuries that they had sustained at the hands of their so-called doctors (oops...was that not objective enough?)

Tuberculosis: Tuberculosis, a major issue at the time for both soldiers and civilians, had to be adressed; Nazi scientists wanted to see if there were any natural immunities to TB and wanted to then create a vaccination to prevent it. Dr. Heissmeyer was a main contender in these trials, as he believed that TB was not in fact an infectious disease. He claimed that "exhaustive" organisms were the only ones susceptible to TB, particularly the racially inferiors (such as the Jews).

In order to find proof of his theory as well as finding a way to vaccinate, Dr. Heissmeyer would inject TB into prisoners' lungs in attempts to create an immunity. There were 200 adult casualties and 20 children hangings as a result of Dr. Heissmeyer's attempts to hide the experiments from the Allies that were close approaching.

Gruesome fact: Dr. Heissmeyer would often remove the lymph glands in children's arms!

A victim of Nazi experiments where doctors would simulate battle wounds on patients/prisoners.
A victim of Nazi experiments where doctors would simulate battle wounds on patients/prisoners. | Source

Misc, Ad Hoc Experiments

These experiments had no scientific merit, and in fact seem to have existed merely out of the doctors' curiosities. These were often intentionally tortuous in nature and included everything from poison to wound studies.

Poison: In Buchenwald, a research team sought to find an effective way of executing a multiplicity of prisoners in a quicker, cheaper, and more efficient way. They came up with an injection that would lead to individual executions. The poisons injected included phenol gasoline and cyanide. Most of these experiments were done on Russian prisoners, and sought to find out how fast subjects would perish.

Wound: Himmler (an important contributor to the Holocaust and many Nazi atrocities) was discovering that SS soldiers were dying of hemorrhaging in the battlefield. With this discovery, he reached out to Dr. Rascher to develop a blood coagulant that would be given to German troops prior to their deployment into the fields of battle. His coagulants were tested, of course, were done on prisoners; they were given amputations that produced fresh blood, which Dr. Rascher could study in order to observe the rate of the blood drops from the wounds.

Gruesome fact: He would even shoot Russian prisoners in the spleen when he ran out of blood to test for his coagulants. The Ravensbrueck Concentration Camp even went so far as to attempt to transplant inmate's limbs to other victim's...of course, this failed miserably)

Before I Move On: A Brief Introduction to Eugenics

According to Wikipedia, Eugenics is "the applied science of the bio-social movement which advocates practices that improve the genetic composition of a population, usually a human population. It is a social philosophy advocating the improvement of human hereditary traits through the promotion of higher reproduction of more desired people and traits, and reduced reproduction of less desired people and traits".

Why am I telling you about this? Nazis were very interested in creating an Aryan race through eugenics. This was considered a central part of their ideology. Those "unworthy of life" included criminals, the degenerate and dissident, the feeble-minded, the homosexual, the idle and insane, and the weak. The goal of the Nazi party was to eliminate these people from the hereditary chain of the population, and this lead to hundreds of thousands of sterilizations. Tens of thousands also were victims of euthanasia programs implemented under Action T4.

A little bit of history: Eugenic studies actually started in California, where it thrived and caught the attention of the Germans -- the Rockefeller Foundation even helped develop and then fund German Eugenic programs. Hitler's belief that Germany had become weak fed perfectly into his interests in eugenics. He believed that the removal of degenerative elements in the national bloodstream would strengthen Germany's community.

Nazi eugenics were specifically inspired by the US's studies in sterilization. Clinics such as the one in Hadamar was used as a site for Action T4. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics was an entity founded in 1927. These clinics and institutes were strongly associated with the theories of eugenics; director Otmar von Verscher and theorists Fritz Lenz and Eugen Fischer took part in such projects as the Rhineland Bastards sterilizations as well as the Grafeneck Castle kill center.

Twins possibly used for Nazi twin experiments.
Twins possibly used for Nazi twin experiments. | Source

Racially Motivated Experiments

These experiments were driven by eugenics (aha!) and anthropological, genetic, and racial goals. Many of these experiments revolved around stopping the reproduction of one type of people and enhancing the reproduction of others. Tests were performed on both male and female criminals and victims by various doctors who sought to improve the German gene pool.

Artificial Insemination: Dr. Carl Clauberg impressed Himmler with his infertility treatments performed on the wives of high-ranking officers of the SS. Inspired by these results, Dr. Clauberg was commissioned by Himmer to work in Auschwitz in Block 10, which infamously becaume Dr. Clauberg's laboratory. The contents of this block were primarily married women ranging from 20-40 years old who had not yet had a child. Women, chosen at random, would be the unlucky victims of Dr. Clauberg's efforts to either sterilize or inseminate these prisoners. Many prisoners were also killed in Block 10 as a result of Dr. Clauberg's work. Around 300 women were exposed to Dr. Clauberg, and some even committed suicide to avoid his experimentation.

Gruesome fact: Dr. Clauberg often teased his captured women, telling them about how he would force them to have sex with male prisoners that had been chosen particularly for his experiments. The taunting didn't end after insemination was complete, however; Dr. Clauberg would then tease the trapped women by telling them that the insemination process would lead to their babies being monsters from animal sperm.

Sterilization: Even though insemination was important to Himmler, his main concern lay in sterilization. Again, using Dr. Clauberg's Cell Block 10, Himmler coaxed Dr. Clauberg into doing experiments to reverse his infertility treatments. He also wanted experiments done on ways to effectively block the fallopian tubes. After these interests were expressed by Himmler, Dr. Clauberg shifted all of his time and effort into finding an efficient method of mass sterilization that would prove cheap and easily reproducible.

Of course, experiments were done on inmates. Often these studies led to genital mutilation of both men and women, but the Nazis were not concerned; their goal was to sterilize "unwanted" female prisoners in the millions. The unfortunate test subjects to these experiments were women in Auschwitz who were injected with a caustic substance. This substance was injected into either their cervix or uterus, and often produced intense pain, inflamed ovaries and spasms in the stomach, along with bleeding. Symptoms of the caustic substance (which was meant to block the fallopian tubes) carried on throughout the woman's life if she survived, and prevented them from ever having children and caused permanent damage to their reproductive organs.

Men were not immune to these sterilization experiments and procedures; many male inmates were tested as well. Doctors would subject the inmate's testicles to massive amounts of radiation before castrating them. This ensured the pathological change in their testes so that they would no longer produce fertile sperm.

Twins: Twins were of major interest to the Nazis. Extensive studies were done in order to find out how to stimulate effective reproduction and multiple births in order to increase the population at a faster rate. Dr. Joseph Mengele headed these experiments, with the ultimate goal of having an Aryan German world.

He did several different unique experiments on twins, most of which were done on Jewish dwarves and identical twins. Over 1000 twins were used, while only 200 survived. Experiments included injuring and torturing one twin then killing them both to compare physical and internal alterations in the pair, as well as experiments on their brains and limbs. The legitimacy of some of the experiments is questionable, however, because Dr. Mengele's obsession with finding an ample amount of twins lead to sloppy scientific collection; many of the identical twins he acquired were in fact only fraternal twins, or not twins at all (some siblings pretended to be twins because of their high value).

The Jewish Skeleton Collection: Thousands of Jews and other minorities were subjected to the horrors and inevitable death that the Nazi regime provided for them in the 1940s. A particularly gruesome event was the 1943 murder of 115 prisoners. Set in the Natzweiller-Struhof Concentration Camp, the unlucky victims were gassed and their corpses were immediately moved to the Anatomy Pavilion of the Strassburg University Hospital for further testing. Dr. August Hirt, a professor of anatomy at Straussburg University, is attempting to re-acquire these victim's skeletal remains in hopes of creating a museum dedicated to the "extinct Jewish race".

A Little Bit Extra: How Results Are Used Now

All of these horrid experiments are things of the past, much like the utilization of concentration camps and the Nazi party, right?


The results from the Nazi experiments performed during the Third Reich are still up for debate in scientific communities. This means that there are scientists who want to use the data, and others who argue that it is not a legitimate source of information.

The Dilemmas Revolving Around Freezing Experiments: Dr. Robert Pozos of the University of Minnesota Medicine is the Director of the Hypothermia Laboratory. He devotes his research to the rewarming of victims exposed to extreme cold. Because of ethical limitations, much of his information on the rewarming of frozen people comes from trial and error methods performed in hospitals. Modern methods of rewarming include microwaving frozen people (imagine if you were a pizza...), using warm blankets and inducing warm fluids into the body, coronary bypass surgeries, and the emersion of frozen bodies into hot bath tubs or using body-to-body warmth.

Hypothermia experimentation relies heavily and almost exclusively on using live human test subjects. Though Dr. Pozos was able to cool subjects down to 36 degrees, his information on temperatures any lower were all speculation. Unfortunately for him and for hypothermia experiments, the Nazis were the only ones willing to subject humans to temperatures below 36. The results from these experiments, including the "Rapid Active Rewarming" method discovered by Dr. Rascher, unfortunately were the only sources of information that filled the gap in Dr. Pozos's studies. Though he wanted to use this data in his testing, his republishing of the Nazi information was turned down because of how the information was obtained and who had offered it.

One of the problems: Test subjects during the Nazi experimentation period were often malnourished, exhausted, sick and lacking in the necessary insulating body fat that most humans have. Therefore, it can be argued that the results from these subjects cannot accurately be applied to healthy adults today because of the drastic changes in physical qualities.

Phosgene Studies and the EPA: In 1989, phosgene (a toxic gas used in pesticides and plastic) was becoming an issue. The EPA sought to find regulations for this air pollution, as around one billion pounds of phosgene was produced annually in the States. EPA experimentation ranged from analyzing the effects of varying doses of the gas on the lungs of the people living around the plants that processed the phosgene. Results of these studies revealed that phosgene can lead to severe fluid build up in the lungs, causing a "drowning" effect that could escalate to death.

The EPA primarily used animals to experiment on to predict the effect of the toxin on humans. Human test subjects were never recorded as being used by the EPA. Because of this, the Assessment Branch of the EPA offered a tentative solution: use Nazi data collected on phosgene.

Himmler, threatened by the potential of Allied forces to use phosgene as a toxic weapon, odered Dr. Bickenback to use humans to experiment on in hopes of finding a way to protect the German soldiers against such poisoning. Prisoners were supposedly stuffed into a claustrophobic test chamber and then exposed to an open vial of phosgene gas. Dr. Bickenback would then count how long it would take for them to die.

EPA scientists were understandably wary of these experiments, and many brought up the concern of the validity of the recorded data. The base of their argument was that Dr. Bickenbach's reports did not record how pulmonary edema was measured and dismissed the patient's gender and weight. Others argued that the conditions of the Nazi prisoners as well as their gender and weight were more or less irrelevant, and that these results could save thousands of lives. Eventually, the heated debate ended with EPA Chief Administrator Lee Thomas's decision to not use the data offered by the Nazi experiments. This decision is still debated, because using the data had the potential to save lives.

The Vogt Collection of Twin Brains: The 1986 meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (try saying that 5 times fast...) was offered an interesting dilemma by Dr. Berhard Bogerts. Dr. Bogerts presented to his colleagues the results of his observations on schizophrenic brains. The controversy was sparked because of where he found the brains that he studied: his test subjects were part of the Brain Collection at the Vogt Institute of the Brain Research in Dusseldorf, Germany. Brains in this collection ranged from 1928-1953.

Dr. Bogerts revealed to the College that his sources were twins that had died during the Nazi experimentation era. The twins, Ernst and Klaus, had died after being transferred to the Wittenau Medical Facility. Dr. Bogert's findings revealed that the two had most likely been subject to malnutrition and neglect that would eventually lead to their deaths. This was not an unlikely scenario, as twins were often used in experiments and the mass murders of mental patients during the Nazi era. Dr. Bogerts was confronted by two doctors at the conference that raised concerns about the moral and ethical use of the twins in his studies.

Further, they suggested that any data obtained from the Nazi era should be subjected to intense and thorough inquiry and investigation into their origins. They suggested the suspension of Dr. Bogert's studies on these two specific victims until the results of the inquiry were confirmed. They extended this by offering a suggestion pertaining to the rest of the specimens procured at the time. They suggested that medical curators investigate all of the specimens they had gathered from the Nazi regime, and that each of these specimens would be removed if they were found to be subjects of torture and murder. This process would confirm the validity of the collection, and ignoring this system would make the entire collection questionable to the scientific and medical communities.

A Brief Conclusion to a Very Long Hub

I know that this was a super long hub on a not very cheery subject!

Nonetheless, it's something that I've been really interested in for the past couple of weeks. It's horrid and gruesome with a severe lack of a moral presence, but it serves as an intriguing insight into the human psyche and how far we can go before it's too much.

That's what I'm mostly interested in: what humans can do to each other. It seems so impossible that it would be so easy to cause that much pain, but it evidently can be done.

I always love delving into the undesirable parts of history that textbooks and teachers glaze over or completely ignore. There are parts of history that expand our knowledge of the past but are covered up because they are often too difficult to digest and conceptualize.

I will probably write more hubs like this, which study the niches of history that most people run away from or cover up.

How would you guys feel if my hubs developed more into subjects like this, that observe the gritty chunks of history in a relatively extensive but summary-like style?


Some of these were used as direct references, and some are places where you can go for more information.

I also suggest browsing Youtube for documentaries ont the subject. This allows you to hear personal stories from survivors as well as informed opinions (far better than mine) from doctors and academics who devote their lives to these subjects.


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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      I voted Useful and Interesting. Not funny, awesome or beautiful.

      What a great presentation. It kept me captivated.

      This is an excellent piece of writing. Honestly, I can easily describe it as amazing.

      I loved every word. Graphics were superb. This hub was helpful, informative and I found it very interesting.

      Voted up too because you deserve it.

      You have such a gift for writing. Keep the wonderful hubs coming.


      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • profile image

      siegfried bär 

      5 years ago

      Then Pozos had the same feelings as Weltz.

      Good luck for Your dissertation!

    • A Karpinski profile imageAUTHOR

      Anna Karpinski 

      5 years ago from Minneapolis

      Regardless of when it was actually put into effect as a rewarming technique, the inspiration for the contemporary studies going on that I had mentioned are Rascher's experiments. I am not disputing that there aren't others who came up with it first; but Rascher's information is what Dr. Pozos was interested in using to inform his own research. Additionally, Dr. Pozos had done experiments with animals but felt that they were inaccurate simply because they are not humans.

      Thank you for the extra information. Again, I could easily delve into each aspect of Nazi experiments, their origins, inspiration, previous similar experiments, etc etc but that is perhaps for a dissertation more than for an online blog! I'm getting ideas though...haha.

    • profile image

      Siegfried Bär 

      5 years ago


      May be another correction. The rapid rewarming method (a water bath of 50 degree) was not the invention of Rascher, Holzlöhner and Finke but was suggested already 50 years before Raschers experiments by a Russian researcher called Lepinski. In addition Georg August Weltz from the university of München came to the the same conclusion (rapid rewarming by water bath is the most efficient rewarming method) by experimenting with guinea pigs and shaved cats in, I believe, 1941. He presented his results in the conference on "Seenot und Winterkälte" in October 1942 in Nürnberg.The protocol of this conference and the results of Weltz You may find in the files of the Ärzteprozeß.

      Yes, I know: Life is complicated!

    • A Karpinski profile imageAUTHOR

      Anna Karpinski 

      5 years ago from Minneapolis

      I know that Rascher's use of cooling was in the spirit of experimentation and not for simply torture of execution.

      This was more an in-depth summary of the Nazi experiments. I would love to look more into this and I thank you for the extra information. I will add this to my Hub so that readers can look more into it.

      I apologize if there were inaccuracies in my Hub but I hope that you enjoyed, at least a little bit, reading about it.

    • profile image

      siegfried bär 

      5 years ago

      My source is my book about the life of Sigmund Rascher ", title: "Der Untergang des Hauses Rascher", 2. edition 2011). It relies amongst other sources on the files of the "Ärzteprozeß". The files (about 20 000 pages) are freely available in the net. In the Ärzteprozeß the witness Hermann Becker-Freyseng said, that Rascher was inspired to his undercooling experiments by articles of Temple Fay. Indeed, in 1938 and 1939 Temple Fay in a US hospital had cooled down about a hundred cancer patients to temperatures far below 36 degrees (down to 24 degrees!). Fay published his experiments in 1941 in scientific journals. Unfortunately, Fays papers are not available in the net and my book is written in German.

      Rascher experiments had not only the aspect of torture or execution. Together with Ernst Holzlöhner and Erich Finke he also tried to solve the problem of rewarming pilots who had been shot down over the North Sea.

    • A Karpinski profile imageAUTHOR

      Anna Karpinski 

      5 years ago from Minneapolis

      I have not. This is what I had gathered from my sources.

      I don't know but I'm assuming they meant subjecting them to temperatures below 36 degrees in the nature of experimentation, not necessarily for torture or execution. If you can give me a specific source to look at then I will make the appropriate changes.

    • profile image

      siegfried bär 

      5 years ago

      "the Nazis were the only ones willing to subject humans to temperatures below 36"


      Have you ever read of Shiro Ishii or Temple Fay?


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