The Validity of Nazi Hypothermia Experimentations:
The Question of Ethics Versus Scientific Knowledge.
This essay deals with medical experiments conducted by the Nazis during the Second
World War. Many types of experimentation occurred in the Third Reich, they include
euthanasia, hypothermia, high pressure, and genetics. However, most of the experiments carried
out in Nazi Germany are viewed as little else than another method of torture imposed upon
involuntary subjects. The question can be posed: Do any of the Nazi's medical experiments
contain valid scientific information, and if so, should this information be used? Due to the broad
field of Nazi experimentation, I will explore this question dealing with, mainly, one type of Nazi
experimentation - hypothermia.
Overall, these medical experiments contained no medically valid or scientifically valid
information. Speculation has appeared as to the validity and ethical aspect of the experiments
that were performed. Should any of the information that was obtained from the from these
experiments be used considering the circumstances in which the information was gathered?
Several debates arise concerning the ethical use, as well as the scientific use of these
experiments. This will be addressed later in the essay.
According to Baruch Cohen, three main types of experiments existed in the Third Reich,
which includes Medico-Military Research, Miscellaneous - Ad Hoc Experiments, and Racially
Motivated Experiments. (no pp). Hypothermia experiments fall into the category of Medico-
Military research due to the use of the information that was recorded from these experiments
dealing with medical or military advances. Miscellanies - Ad Hoc experiments dealt with
research that had no scientific purpose, poison experiments are an example of these experiments.
Racially Motivated experiments which dealt with experiments dealt with genetic and racial
interests, sterilization experiments fell into this category.
The use of hypothermia experiments originated from the need for new technology.
During the Second World War, air warfare had not been widely used, this led to a need for
science to quickly attempt to make improvements upon the standards of air warfare.
Hypothermia experiments were conducted in large vats of freezing liquid. This simulated the
conditions of the North Sea, where main pilots died after descending into the cold waters.
Another method to conduct hypothermia experiments involved strapping subject to a stretcher
and to leave them outside - often naked - in sub-zero conditions. In the course of this essay, we
will refer to the latter method of the hypothermia experiments.
These experiments were similar to other types of experiments performed in Nazi
Germany because of the inhumane methods employed to gain the results of the experiments.
Even though the hypothermia experiments began out of a need to advance an aspect of air
warfare, an element of torture always accompanied the research techniques. This was caused by
Nazi physicians having the attitude that the subjects of these experiments were destined to die in
the concentration camps. Therefore, by performing experiments on them, the doctors believed
that they may actually be aiding these people by bringing death faster. As an example of the
torturous experiments being used by some Nazis concerns two Russian men, that were believed
to have made a comment to the SS officer conducting the experiment. These two men withstood
the temperature in the freezing solution longer than previously recorded, when this was noted, the
SS officer raised the temperature slightly in order to prolong their pain; this led to their
death.(Rosenberg. no pp).
Hypothermia experiments carried out in the Third Reich differ slightly from other
experiments that were performed. The important difference is the presence of a scientific
purpose present in the experiment. Research experiments, such as hypothermia and pressure,
began out of a need for innovation, while racially motivated experiments, such as sterilization
and euthanasia, originated from anti-Semitic movements.
Medical research was performed in the hope that a discovery would establish the Third
Reich as a world leader. The methods of experiments that were conducted in Germany during
this time cannot be justified; the subjects were treated in a sub-human fashion, and if the Nazi's
medical experiments are viewed in today's standards, these experiments would not be excusable
if performed on animals. The inhumane experiments were conducted because the government
wanted to advance the Third Reich, there was very little accurate scientific emphasis placed upon
problems. Nevertheless, hypothermia experiments may contradict the general condemnation of
the medical experiments in Nazi Germany by offering a relatively valid scientific source. Thus,
is the data gathered from hypothermia experiments valid both scientifically and ethically?
Some scientists have argued that even though the practices of using such methods would
violate any laws involving medical norms and expectations of the Hippocratic oath, much of the
results from the hypothermia, and consequent rewarming experiments, are relevant. If the
concentration camp experiments on hypothermia did not take place, this information would not
have been gathered and employed elsewhere. Baruch Cohen explains that the use of Nazi
hypothermia experiments by current researches, such as Robert Pozos - the Director of the
Hypothermia Laboratory at the University of Minnesota - would aid to fill the gaps of current
research. Pozos would not allow a subject's core body temperature to fall below thirty-six
degrees. The only experiments that have allowed a human's core body temperature to fall below
thirty-six degrees were those conducted at Dachau. By using the Nazi's results from
hypothermia experiment, Pozos can compile a more accurate conclusion on the effects of
hypothermia on the body.
Some critics have originally condemned the usage of the data collected, but on further
investigation have concluded the relevance to the medical community. This is illustrated by
Pozos in reference to Andrew Ivy. Ivy was the American scientist that evaluated the observations
of Nazi medical experiments for the Nuremberg trials. On first inspection, Ivy found the
experiments to have no scientific value, and were nothing more than atrocities of the war.
However, after re-evaluation, Ivy noted that some of the information from the hypothermia
experiments held relevance, he is one of the first scientists to consider the data accurate.
For more than two thousand years physicians have sworn to practice by the guidelines set
in the Hippocratic Oath. Even though the validity concerning most of Nazi experimentations has
been recorded as containing no medical or scientific purpose - excluding the study of psychology
- the debate over the results of the hypothermia experiments is still in question. The debate over
the scientific value of the hypothermia experiments is the most important aspect of the validity of
Nazi experiments. If the observations are not accurate, they will not be used, thus ending the
ethical problems which arise when this data is used.
"The scientific method is a procedure of research in which a problem is identifies,
relevant data are gathered, a hypothesis is formulated, and the hypothesis is empirically
tested."(Webster's 703). This method is the universal basis for scientific research, this is
relevant to note when exploring Nazi hypothermia experiments. The scientific value of the
Nazi's experimentation is doubtful, this is due to the need to constantly test scientific hypotheses.
Scientific method dictates that a theory cannot be proved totally correct. It is this part of science
that denotes that experiments should constantly occur to support the validity of an experiment.
Here we encounter the first obstacle of the possible acceptance of Nazi medical experiments as
Under medical ethics, human rights laws, and even animal rights laws, the conditions that
these experiments were conducted in cannot be reproduced. Therefore, the hypothermia
experiments cannot be reproduced. "Since the experiments cannot be repeated, Robert Pozos
states, the data can never be considered accurate."(102). Pozos continued that "even if the
experiments had not been duplicated, that does not disprove their accuracy." (102). This
contradictory explanation concerning the validity of hypothermia experiments illustrates that
Pozos's poor attempt to justify these experiments in terms of individual findings, from the whole
of Nazi experimentation.
Another justification that should be considered in deciding if the hypothermia
experiments are useful to modern science is the possibility that results from experiments
conducted in the Third Reich have been fabricated. Propaganda in Nazi Germany was extremely
common, therefore caution should be taken when analyzing the results of the experiments.
According to Robert Berger, "the experimental approach was disorganized and haphazard. The
work did not follow an orderly protocol essential for an acceptable scientific inquiry."(111)
Furthermore, "there is evidence of falsification and suggestion of fabrication, while many
conclusions are not supported by the data presented." (Berger 111). Cohen suggests that
fabrications of the Nazi's hypothermia experiments were due to political pressures placed on the
experimenters to produce hypothermia results. If this was not accomplished, the experimenters
were severely punished.
Hypothermia research had its beginnings in the Third Reich. Techniques for the reversal
of hypothermia were also pioneered in the death camps. Yet, the intention of these experiments
was not only acquiring knowledge on this condition, but for the advancement of the Nazi Regime
and, at times, a form of torture. The validity of the scientific aspect of hypothermia experiments
is an extremely debatable topic. If the results of the entire hypothermia experiments are being
examined, then the amount of significant data in very minimal. However, as Katz and Pozos
point out, information taken from individual results on the experiments has supported knowledge
of hypothermia that existed before the Second World War.(136). Also, some of the results from
these experiments sparked not only controversy as to their significance, but initiated further
investigations into the observations, especially concerning the rewarming of the body. As with
the pervious mention of Ivy, Nazi hypothermia experiments were not viewed objectively due to
the other atrocities that were a part of the Third Reich. This may possibly be the only positive
repercussion arising from the Third Reich during the Holocaust.
A conclusion concerning the scientific validity of information taken from is difficult to
determine. The main point of this scientific debate is whether the information is considered as a
part of all experiments conducted in Nazi Germany, or as a separate entity. As a whole, the Nazi
doctor's experiments held no scientific importance, and could not be applied to any other
scientific endeavor. Yet, some individual aspects have sparked some advances in medical
procedures. For example, in these experiments it was observed that if the rewarming method
used that was raised the body's core temperature slower, then the chance of death was greatly
diminished. These individual aspects of the hypothermia experiments contain scientific value,
albeit somewhat small.
As stated, some of the results from the hypothermia experiments give accurate insight
into the scientific aspect of the possible use of the experiments. However, a conclusion whether
or not the research is valid and should be used cannot be fully reach without examining the
ethical view of the experiments. The Nuremberg Trails, which occurred in 1945, explore the
accountability of many of the Nazi physicians who conducted medical inquiries. Of the twenty-
two men and one woman, fifteen were convicted of atrocities against humankind. This point
cannot be ignored in the examination of the justifications in using some of the results from
experiments that these people conducted.
Science is amoral. This may be the only determinant to the ethical use of Nazi based
experimental data. Ethically, the manner of conducting the experiments dictates that the results
should not be used. Scientifically, the hypothermia experiments contained some value - this is
the only exception in terms of other Nazi experiments . It is this exception that can, and should
be, applied to any appropriate research or theory; caution concerning the significance of the
amount of importance placed upon these experiments should also be taken into account. With
this stipulation, hypothermia experiment conducted in the Third Reich hold some reliability. Yet
this is merely the scientific argument over the use of the experiment's observations.
Millions of people were murdered during the Holocaust, this is a known fact, there is no
dispute as to the loss of lives, this period is viewed as a historical tragedy. If valuable scientific
information that was conducted during this time, why does society simply regard this information
as the only 'good' from evil? What good, if any, should we derive from this era? This is the
ethical approach to the medical research that took place in the Third Reich. Due to the methods
used to gain the scientifically valid observations, should these observations be considered
morally or ethically valid as well?
Under the Hippocratic Oath, a physician is sworn to aid the "sick according to their
ability and judgement, but never with a view of injury or wrongdoing . . . they will abstain all
intentional wrongdoing and harm." (Lifton iii). The Hippocratic Oath stands for the morals of
the medical community for over two thousand years. Nazi medical experiments are in violation
of not only the Hippocratic Oath and the general morality of society. An ethical debate cannot
take place unless some of the observations from hypothermia experiments are considered
When examining the ethical validity of the hypothermia experiments, the point should be
considered that medical ethics has not drastically changed since the Second World War. With
this perspective, would this data be ethically and morally accepted by society if these experiments
were performed today? The answer is an obvious no; human rights, animal rights, and medical
ethics would all protect society from the results of this data from being used. Cohen puts this
into perspective when he posses the possibility of using a bar of soap made from Jewish people
from Auschwitz. He condemns any observations that were derived from human experiments,
while asking the question: Can society forget the atrocities that occurred to obtain this data?
The ethical validity of Nazi experiments is a sensitive topic. In many ways, the morality
of using this data is broken down to the individual in comparison to society. Nazi medical
experiments hold some valid scientific data, even though the methods that were used cannot be
justified. Some of the data collected can aid in the development of new means to save lives - as
in the case of hypothermia. If this data can possibly aid to save lives, why not use the data to
develop something 'good', from methods that are essentially immoral?
The Holocaust is associated with brutality, genocide, and the destruction that can occur
from a totalitarian system. These horrific images are justly placed, and the medical experiments
conducted are a testimony to these images. Relevance as to the legitimacy of any experiments
performed in the Third Reich usually reinforces negative connotations. However, in the case of
hypothermia and rewarming experiments, the conclusion can be reach that the results of the
experiment are applicable to further investigation. Recognition of some relevance to the medical
community must be given to the Nazi doctors, albeit the ends do not justify the means.