In 1941, Charlotte Pommer graduated from medical school at the University of Berlin and went to work for Hermann Stieve, head of the school’s Institute of Anatomy. The daughter of a bookseller, Pommer had grown up in Germany’s capital city as Hitler rose to power. But she didn’t appreciate what the Nazis meant for her chosen field until Dec. 22, 1942. What she saw in Stieve’s laboratory that day changed the course of her life—and led her to a singular act of protest.
On the eve of Remembrance Day, I feel compelled to take a moment to reflect on the meaning and purpose of our work in the medical field. Medicine strives to do good by those we treat and by society as a whole. It is a standard we swear an oath to uphold. However, medicine is also an institution whose legacy spans recorded time and includes some of our greatest and worst moments.
No wound is fresher in our minds than the atrocities performed in the name of science and medicine in World War II. It was an era where we learned the effects of hypothermia, the physiological effects of healing, the effects of wound infection and gangrene et cetera under the worst possible circumstances: via human experimentation. The list goes on. Much of this knowledge, and much of the anatomical studies performed, still pervade modern medicine today.
It is unsettling in many respects. I do not know if, when, or how we can come to terms with the ethical dilemma of using such information. In the interim, I will reiterate what Hubert Markl, president of the Max Planck Society said:
“I beg you, the surviving victims, from the bottom of my heart to forgive those who, no matter what their reasons, failed to ask you themselves.”