First, do no harm—is a key element of the Hippocratic oath—the oath physicians take. However, before and during World War II, many physicians working for or with the Nazi regime were happy to forget that oath.
And not all of them were members of the Nazi party, as was Dr Hans Asperger, an Austrian doctor. He is best known for his early studies on mental disorders, especially in children and especially children with autism.
He was a pioneer in autism research whose name describes high-functioning people with the disorder, referred to as Asperger Syndrome had a previously unknown dark past that included sending children with disabilities to a euthanasia program run by the Nazi regime, according to new investigations into his long-lost files.
In a questionnaire from October 1940, Hans Asperger registered several memberships in Nazi-affiliated associations. However, he did not join the Nazi party.
Herwig Czech, from Vienna’s Medical University, had reported in an academic paper published in the open-access journal Molecular Autism following eight years of research into the paediatrician Hans Asperger.
Czech’s research revealed that Dr Asperger was not the courageous defender of his patients against euthanasia by the Nazis, as many had thought. In fact, it was far from it—he benefited from his cooperation with the regime and publicly legitimized race hygiene policies—including forced sterilization—according to a study published online on 19 April 2018 in the journal, Molecular Autism.
Asperger was a scientist who aligned himself so closely with the Nazi ideology that he regularly referred children to the Am Spiegelgrund Clinic, which was set up as a collecting point for children who failed to conform to the regime’s criteria of worthy to live. Nearly 800 children died at the clinic between 1940 and 1945, many of whom were murdered under the notorious child euthanasia scheme.
Hundreds were either drugged or gassed to death from 1940 to 1945. Even the children authorised for treatment were not killed immediately as a rule, but were used, sometimes for months, in scientific research.
Among Czech’s findings is a photo of the distraught face of Herta Schreiber, who died of pneumonia three months after her admittance to Spiegelgrund, on Asperger’s orders, a day after her third birthday. She had suffered from encephalitis. Encephalitis is a swelling of the brain and can be caused by infection or an allergic reaction. Assessed in late June 1941, the young girl suffered from a severe personality disorder, idiocy and seizures. Asperger added, “She must be an unbearable burden to her mother,” and then recommended permanent placement at Spiegelgrund.
Herta was admitted to Spiegelgrund on 1 July 1941.
On 8 August, she was reported to the Reich Committee for the Scientific Registration of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses, the secret organisation behind child euthanasia. With zero chance of recovery and no shortened life expectancy, she was recommended for the program and the euthanasia experts viewed this as an unacceptable combination. On 2 September, a day after her third birthday, Herta died of pneumonia, the most common cause of death at Spiegelgrund. A specimen of her brain was found in a preparation jar in the clinic’s basement in the 1990s and buried in 2002.
“There was no evidence that Asperger deliberately targeted euthanasia for the patients with distinct psychological characteristics he had labelled autistic psychopaths, under the diagnosis for which he became famous,” said Czech. But his diagnoses proved burdensome for many of his patients, even years after the collapse of the Nazi regime. Asperger continued working as a doctor for more than three decades.
The term Asperger Syndrome first came up in London in 1981, by Dr Lorna Wing. She and other scientists, clinicians, and the broader autism community, were unaware of Hans Asperger’s close alliance with, and support of, the Nazi programme of compulsory sterilisation and euthanasia.
Of course, this does not reflect in any way, shape or form on those who are diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, but I do believe we should start looking more critically at the work of scientists of the Nazi era.
Hans Asperger (front row, right) with his medical colleagues in Vienna in 1933. Photograph: Medical University of Vienna/Josephinum)
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