Mad Science and the Military

In April came a revelation that sent shockwaves through the medical community and wider world that Hans Asperger, the physician after whom Asperger’s syndrome was named, was in cahoots with the Nazis.  According to a study published in the journal Molecular Autism, Asperger, famed for his revolutionary studies of paediatrics, most notably autism, regularly sent disabled infants to Am Spiegelgrund during the Second World War.


“The picture that emerges is that of a man who managed to further his career under the Nazi regime,” writes lead study author Herwig Czech, “despite his apparent political and ideological distance from it.”


Am Spiegelgrund was a so-called medical clinic in Vienna for disabled and delinquent children. Its underage patients, considered “unworthy” by the Nazis, were the subjects of unspeakable medical experiments and euthanised—from 1940-45 nearly 800 of its kids perished. Elsewhere, using concentration camp inmates, Nazi doctors carried out 30 different types of depraved experiments, leaving countless victims in unimaginable pain, often permanently mutilated or disabled, or dead. Fifteen doctors were found guilty of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials and of those, seven were hung.


Even in relatively modern times there have been countless cases of human medical experiments, often with military links, and not just confined to countries or regimes that we tend  to consider ‘the baddies’. A 2015 investigative tome by Ulf Schmidt called Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments revealed that between 1939-89 nearly 22,000 British soldiers were deceived into taking part in experiments without fully knowing what they were for. Some of the tests were even inspired by the Nazi ‘science’ garnered from their human experiments of the Second World War. One such example stemmed from the Germans’ proposed use of poisoned bullets that ensured victims died even if the shot itself was not fatal. This led to UK military personnel dripping nerve agent onto their charges’ uniforms, or sometimes even their exposed skin, while the human lab rats thought they were taking part in research to cure the common cold. “If you advertised for people to suffer agony,” said one superintendent, “you would not get them.”


“I really felt a duty to my country to go and serve,” Tim Josephs tells CNN. “Things were different back then. You believed in your government. And you just wouldn’t think they would give you something that would harm you intentionally.”


Josephs was one of the thousands that took part in one of the most notorious of such military scandals when the US army developed a Cold War programme that sought to weaponise concoctions of chemicals and drugs, including LSD, in an attempt to mind control their enemy. (The programme inspired the darkly comic movie The Men Who Stare at Goats, starring Ewan McGregor and George Clooney.) The operation was conducted from 1955-75 at the Edgewood facility in Maryland, and Josephs signed up as an 18-year-old private in 1968 believing he would be testing out the latest military clothing, not mind-altering substances. When concerns were raised there were threats of jail for those that did not comply. Medical complications started almost immediately, beginning with tremors. In his mid-50s, Josephs was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.


“They’re hoping we die off, so you apply [for benefits], you get turned down,” Joseph says. “And it just goes on for years and years, and they just want to wear us down. They want to use young men as guinea pigs and throw them away.”


Last November it was announced that tens of thousands of US veterans had won a class action suit against their military for their involvement in chemical and biological testing from 1942-75. The lawsuit was filed in 2009 but Ben Patterson of law firm Morrison and Foerster, representing the veterans, reveals to NPR that the army still won’t reveal the specific chemicals the soldiers were exposed to, and that they are creating hurdles to “discourage and prevent veterans from applying to the program and receiving the medical care to which they are entitled under the Army’s own regulation”.


Perhaps Tony Allen-Mills sums it up most succinctly in his Sunday Times review of Ulf Schmidt’s book: “… the author’s message is clear. Governments that insist on secrecy in the name of national security simply cannot be trusted.”


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces