The Nuremberg Code and Medical Research

By Grodin, Michael A. | The Hastings Center Report, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

The Nuremberg Code and Medical Research


Grodin, Michael A., The Hastings Center Report


On December 4th and 5th, 1989, the Law, Medicine and Ethics Program of Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health sponsored a symposium entitled "The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Relevance for Modern Medical Research." The goal of the conference was to explore the nature, scope, and historical underpinnings of Nazi medical "experiments," to examine the origins of the Nuremberg Code, and to understand the role of the Code and its principles in modem medical research.

In the opening session historical perspective was provided by West German physician and medical historian Christian Pross and author Robert Proctor. Both highlighted the extent of physician involvement in Nazi experimentation, and Proctor, author of Racial Hygiene, argued that far from being passive pawns, physicians were instrumental in formulating and took the lead in carrying out the Nazi racial hygiene program. Herman Wigodsky, professor of pathology and former director of U.S. Air Force research, discussed the role of the U.S. government in collaborating with Nazi scientists after the war, and the role of physician-scientists working for the government.

In a session on the Nuremberg Code, conference co-director Michael Grodin focused on the doctors' trial and traced the origins of the Code to the prosecution's chief medical witnesses, Dr. Andrew Ivy and Dr. Leo Alexander. Based in the Hippocratic tradition, the Code draws on several previous codes of research ethics, including pre-war German regulations that were as strict and comprehensive as the post-war Nuremberg Code. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota, addressed the

relevance of codes of medical ethics in modem medical practice and the extent to which informed consent has come to protect researchers rather than subjects. And Elie Wiesel, Boston University professor, Nobel Laureate, Holocaust survivor, and Nuremberg witness, cited the emphasis on abstraction, and dehumanization as central to understanding how educated physicians from prestigious universities could have participated in the Holocaust.

In sessions on the legal dimensions of the Code, Yale professor Jay Katz focused on the centrality of the doctrine of informed consent to the Code, and its relationship to the Declaration of Helsinki and present Health and Human Services Regulations, while Robert Drinan, S. …

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