CHANNELING HISTORY: CU Anschutz bioethicist to examine doctors’ role in Holocaust

“This is really hard to talk about,” Wynia said. “The history of the Holocaust, in particular medicine in the Holocaust, is such an icon for evil that it’s difficult to have any kind of a nuanced conversation about how to learn the lessons of the Holocaust.”

AURORA | If you’d like to bring a debate to a screeching halt, comparing some present-day issue to Nazi Germany is probably a good tactic.

That’s especially true when discussing the horrors perpetrated by doctors during the Holocaust, even in a medical school setting, said Dr. Matthew Wynia, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

Dr. Matthew Wynia, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at CU Anschutz poses for a portrait in the Fulginiti Pavilion for Ethics and Humanities building on Friday at the Anschutz campus. The center recently a $100,000 gift to develop programs exploring the role doctors played in the holocaust. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Dr. Matthew Wynia, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at CU Anschutz poses for a portrait in the Fulginiti Pavilion for Ethics and Humanities building on Friday at the Anschutz campus. The center recently a $100,000 gift to develop programs exploring the role doctors played in the holocaust. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

“This is really hard to talk about,” Wynia said. “The history of the Holocaust, in particular medicine in the Holocaust, is such an icon for evil that it’s difficult to have any kind of a nuanced conversation about how to learn the lessons of the Holocaust.”

Wynia is hoping Center for Bioethics and Humanities can help students explore that nuanced conversation.

Last month, Dr. William Silvers pledged $100,000 to the center for programs exploring the role of health professionals in the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust, and how health professionals helped plan and carry it out, is of more than historical importance,” Silvers said in a statement announcing the gift. “Today’s ethical standards related to research, patient advocacy and public health cannot be fully understood without first knowing how medical professionals behaved before and during the Holocaust. It is also critical in helping future physicians understand their own responsibilities.”

Wynia, who has studied the role doctors played in the Holocaust and given lectures about it, said it is always a tough topic to broach.

“You actually close people’s minds when you talk about Nazis and medicine,” he said.

One key to starting the conversation, Wynia said, is to acknowledge right away that no matter how bad some modern research abuse could be, it isn’t as horrible as what some Nazi doctors did — including deliberately infecting a young girl with typhus and watching her die just to study the disease.

“You just have to put that on the table very bluntly at the outset,” Wynia said. “And then say, ‘But the doctors who did those things were in their time respected internationally,’ the German medical profession was really renowned going into the Nazi era.”

Last month, Dr. William Silvers pledged $100,000 to the center for programs exploring the role of health professionals in the Holocaust.

But those questions about how a renowned medical community descended into such horror are rarely asked, even in a medical school setting.

In the statement announcing Silvers’ gift, the medical school pointed to a 2013 survey of medical schools in the United States and Canada that said just 22 of 140 required any course work on the roles of physicians in the Holocaust.

Wynia said there is a feeling among some in the profession that because the Nazi era was so horrific, and such a historic anomaly, that there is no risk of similar atrocities happening today.

But that view that it could never happen again is dangerous, Wynia said, and is one of the reasons the Tuskegee syphilis experiments continued in the United States into the 1970s, well after doctors here wee well aware of what had happened in Nazi Germany.

“It’s wrong to think just because it ended in such an evil thing that they were totally different from doctors today, and that’s the place where I worry about subverting vigilance,” he said.

It isn’t clear yet exactly what the program will look like, and Wynia said he is seeking more donations so the program can expand. At the outset, it will include some guest speakers in the spring 2016 semester, he said.

Whatever shape it takes, Wynia said the program will include not just students from University of Colorado School of Medicine, but also students at the nursing, pharmacy and other schools on campus.

“This is not about Jewish history, this is about medical history, it’s about the history of medical ethics gone wrong,” he said. “And that’s what we have to understand and remember.”

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