Deadly medicine: when ‘science’ justifies racism and murder
A chilling exhibition on eugenics has touched the lives of over 6,000 South Africans
Science can be our saving grace. But what happens when it all goes horribly wrong and those holding the knowledge use it for all the wrong reasons, like weeding out those deemed “inferior” and justifying barbaric acts in the name of science?
This is the question that lies behind Deadly Medicine – Creating the Master Race, an exhibition and programme that has been travelling around SA for a year and which is now about to head to Namibia.
It traces the history of eugenics (the science of developing the “master race”) and looks at the atrocities committed before World War 2 in the lead-up to the Holocaust, which industrialised murder on a scale not seen before or since.
It also illuminates SA’s own uncomfortable history with eugenics, and the impact it still has on our society today.
To date, about 3,700 pupils in SA have seen the exhibition, as well as almost 1,200 university students. There have been almost 200 teachers attending, and a further 3,300 members of the public. After the exhibition arrived from its place of origin (the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), it has appeared in Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria.
“It has made an enormous impact on people,” says Richard Freedman, director of the Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre , “especially medical students who have commented afterwards on how aware it has made them of the responsibility that goes with using their knowledge for the greater good instead of bad.”
The beginning of eugenics
Freedman explains: “Eugenics started off with an idea in the early 1900s that we could improve society and create perfection. But what this soon came to mean was that an ‘ideal’ had to be identified.”
Innate to that was a concept that those with “ideal” genes should be encouraged to procreate, while those who were not the ideal, those deemed “less than”, should be prevented from having more children.
Around that time, in the 1920s, eugenics became a “buzzword”, and hot on its heels came the idea that “sterilisation” was akin to survival of the fittest. One starts seeing the emergence, for example, of “healthy baby” competitions in Russia and other countries.
The seeds for the dark side of eugenics had already thus been planted by then, but when Hitler gained power it turned into a far more sinister term. Positioning himself as the “doctor” of the nation who could “heal” it, it suddenly became acceptable to see some people as a “sickness” within the society which functioned as a whole.
“Science then becomes an excuse for racism,” says Freedman, “and having these experts in the field involved in it, it is elevated.”
One of the main perpetrators of this supremacist ideology was Dr Eugen Fischer. Between 1904 and 1908, the German Empire carried out a genocide in South West Africa (now Namibia) of the Herero, Nama and San. Between 24,000 and 100,000 Hereros, 10,000 Nama and an uncounted number of San died. It was not longer after this that Fischer began publishing “studies” on the “lesser racial equality” of these communities.
But it wasn’t just about race. Those considered less fit in terms of health were viewed as a blight on the community. From 1927, the “science” behind weeding out those considered “inferior” was legitimised even further by the establishment of the the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, which was underpinned by Fischer’s theories.
Sterilisation and ‘euthanasia’ of those less fit
In 1934, Germany began a forced sterilisation programme, and altogether about 400,000 German men and women were sterilised. The most common diagnosis for sterilisation was simply “feeblemindedness”. Second and third were schizophrenia and epilepsy.
“Many died from botched operations, especially women,” explains Freedman. After this came the so-called euthanasia of children considered less fit or able-bodied. “Those making the decisions who should live or die were the doctors and the nurses,” Freedman points out. Lethal injections were used, and then came Germany’s first gas chambers.
More than 5,000 children died. One of the main doctors behind this was Dr Ernst Wentzler, who co-ordinated the paediatric “euthanasia” programme by evaluating patients’ forms and then ordering the killing of several thousand children. Many of the deceased children’s bodies were used for scientific experimentation and research.
Euthanasia centres were set up around Germany by 1940, and these were authorised to murder adults with psychiatric problems and physical disabilities in what was known as Operation T-4.
The goal of this Nazi Euthanasia Programme was to kill people with mental and physical disabilities since this would cleanse the “Aryan” race of people considered genetically defective and a financial burden to society.
“Even after the war, those involved in T-4 were simply allowed to carry on working as doctors. There was no punishment,” says Freedman. Altogether, 270,000 adults had their lives snuffed out by this barbaric programme in the name of science and “racial hygiene”.
These ideologies, their justification in the name of science, the technology that was developed (such as the gas chambers), and stamp of approval from those with power all laid the foundation for the Holocaust which followed. This saw six million Jews murdered simply because they were seen as a blight on the Aryan race, the “master” race. Also murdered were about 9,000 homosexual people, and half a million Romani (formerly called Gypsies).
“Engineers, doctors, scientists and architects all played their role,” says Freedman.
Facing up to SA’s past with eugenics
One looks on the exhibition in horror, wondering how the lunatic fringe with its warped racial beliefs came into power in Germany in the 1930s. And then, one comes to a small but powerful SA component of this exhibition, and the discomfort grows even more.
In 1925, a box arrived on the shores of SA. It had been sent from Germany and carried with it not just scientific equipment but the racial supremacist ideology that went with it. Inside the box was an eye colour table, a hair colour table, and a set of calipers.
Almost a century later, these are now included in the SA component of the Deadly Medicine exhibition because of how they were used here: the eye colour table was designed by a German anthropologist, Rudolf Martin. It looks like a box of fake eyes of different colours, and was used to “measure” race by eye colour. Also in the box was the aforementioned Fischer’s hair colour table – a set of strands of hair of varying shades, also used to “measure” race. The calipers were used to measure the human head.
From about 1917, the eye and hair colour tables were offered for sale to “scientists” around the world who were recording biological data on racial difference. It was no surprise then that they were used in studies of human measurement at Stellenbosch University for the purpose of racial categorisation.
Researcher Handri Walters, who introduced the SA component of the exhibition, says: “At the zoology department of Stellenbosch University these objects were employed to measure an array of human beings between 1925 and 1950 … the results acted in service of racial categorisation. Their use cannot be removed from the broader political context in which they operated at the time.”
And today …
Just as hauntingly, the exhibition includes a side-exhibition called The Mark of Life Esidimeni Decanting by Graeme Williams. It looks at the Esidimeni tragedy in the context of eugenics – how we, as Freedman puts it, “callously ‘dispose’ of those who are no longer productive in the name of ‘medicine’.”
Another side-exhibition, Disability and Sexuality, encourages the majority of society “to think more inclusively in its conceptions of sexuality”.
• Deadly Medicine runs until March 6 2019 at the Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre. On its final night there is a panel discussion on Disability and Citizenship at 6pm.