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Medicine as Genocide: SS Doctors versus Prisoner Doctors in the Battle against Typhus during World War II.

Book Essay on: Naomi Baumslag, Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation and Typhus
( Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2005), 304pages.

by Rebecca Elliott
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at

About Rebecca Elliott

I am an Education Abroad Program student from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, studying at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for one year. I study joint honors history and theology, with an emphasis on Nazi Germany. Living in Europe, I have developed a keen interest in the events which took place in Germany during World War II. I am particularly interested in how educated Germans such as doctors came to endorse the Nazi ideology against Jews, and the role they played in the genocide, which I hope to use as my dissertation topic.

Abstract (back to top)

In her book, Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation and Typhus, Baumslag discusses the abuse of the Nazi physicians in charge of administering health to ghetto and concentration camp inhabitants. Baumslag’s main focus is on the political use of typhus, which was fuelled to encourage quarantine and isolation of the ‘disease,’ which was defined as the Jewish people themselves. Drawing on research conducted by German scientists at the time, which had identified effective measures of typhus prevention and control to be employed for German troops at the front, Baumslag proves that Nazi doctors were aware that quarantines imposed on people living in unsanitary conditions with little food would fuel typhus and therefore death. The Nazi physicians therefore used typhus as a biological weapon to assist in the eradication of the Jewish people, speeding up the process and keeping the cost of gas chambers down. Typhus outbreaks which were fuelled in the concentration camps caused the deaths of 1.5 million prisoners as a direct consequence of murder, malpractice, or deliberate negligence by German doctors, thus it is an example of biological warfare. Conversely, Baumslag documents the ingenuity of prisoner doctors in providing care for typhus patients and in hiding cases of typhus to prevent collective punishment and certain death.

Essay (back to top)

In Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation and Typhus, Naomi Baumslag investigates the ways in which educated Nazi physicians cast aside science and medical ethics and instead redirected their skill and medical knowledge towards evil acts, whereby political allegiance took precedence over the moral code of ethics which is integral to the caring profession. Baumslag’s primary focus is upon typhus, a disease transmitted by lice infected with the organism Rickettsia prowazekii, and how the Nazis manipulated the spread of disease to assist in their program of murdering the Jewish population in order to prevent ‘contamination’ of the Nordic gene pool. Baumslag seeks to draw attention to typhus as a method used by the Nazis to assist in the eradication of the Jewish population, which is less well documented than gaschambers and intracardiac injections, whilst also devoting a large proportion of her book to the various ways in which Jewish inmates and prisoner doctors were able to resist typhus epidemics and the mass death which resulted from such an outbreak.

Drawing upon a range of sources including typhus warning posters from concentration camps, photographs of Nazi and Jewish laboratories within the camps, photographs of gas chambers, invoices for Zyklon B cyanide gas, medical files and reports alongside diary entries and first hand recollections of prisoners who survived the concentration camps, Baumslag is able to assess the Nazi doctors’ manipulation of typhus and therefore its role in the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Baumslag demonstrates that approximately 1.5 million prisoners in ghettos and concentration camps died of typhus as a direct consequence of murder, malpractice, or deliberate negligence by German doctors, and uses this evidence to lend weight to her conclusion that the manipulation of the spread of typhus is an exemplar of biological warfare (Baumslag, xxv).

Infectious disease in the form of typhus was deliberately fuelled by Nazi physicians, who were fully aware that insanitary conditions in an over-crowded environment would lead to outbreaks of the disease in epidemic proportions. These outbreaks were then used to justify further ‘containment’ measures through gassing, shooting or burning down whole blocks of prisoners. Innovative resistance from Jewish prisoners and doctors helped to reduce the impact of Nazi attitudes to typhus, as what little resources available were utilized in the struggle against the genocidal plans of the Nazis. Typhus was therefore used as a biological weapon of genocide, manipulated to either directly or indirectly take the lives of over 1.5 million people of mostly Jewish origin, therefore constituting an example of biological warfare.

During World War II, the Germans created conditions which increased incidence of typhus, through quarantine and isolation in the Warsaw Ghetto, for example with inadequate food or washing facilities combined with severe overcrowding. The typhus epidemics which ensued as a result were then used to justify the ghettoization of Jews throughout German-occupied territory, and to provide Nazi officials and doctors with greater opportunity to tackle the ‘Jewish question.’ For example, in response to typhus outbreaks, SS officials often placed the camps under quarantine, thereby exacerbating the problem, as was the case in Dachau in 1944, where up to 50 prisoners per day died of typhus during a quarantine block (Baumslag, 59). Conversely, when a typhus epidemic broke out during the construction of Monowitz, a subcamp designated Auschwitz III in 1943, doctors selected sick prisoners and suspected contacts to be sent to the gas chambers, whilst others were hanged or shot by SS personnel (Baumslag, 59).

The cruelty and inhumane behaviour of doctors has been documented, for example brutal SS doctor Oberschharfuhrer Jakob Fries made suspected typhus patients run, and shot them if they were unable to do so, whilst inspections of naked prisoners were made by doctors who then condemned any prisoner with spots or any thin muselman to death (Baumslag, 65). This correlates with the story of Vladek Speigleman, a Jewish prisoner who recalls this process of ‘selektion’ in Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (Spiegelman, 67). It is therefore evident that far from striving to ensure the health of the camp inmates, those in charge of administering public health instead fuelled disease, as German physicians recommended quarantine instead of destruction of lice to combat typhus, despite knowing that forcing the Jewish people into filthy and overcrowded conditions would ensure the presence of lice and therefore facilitate a breakdown of community health (Baumslag, 90). This suggests that Nazi physicians put political ideology before science, and that for many pursuit of power and money superseded the quest for science and health in an ethical manner in accordance with the Hippocratic Oath taken by those in the medical profession.

There was much motivation on the Nazis’ behalf to fund research to combat typhus since this was paramount to the success of the military, and since pharmaceutical companies were eager to develop drugs and vaccines due to the profits they might derive. The fact that an estimated 1.5 million prisoners died of typhus in spite of medical research into preventing the disease strongly suggests that the spread of the disease was deliberately facilitated by the Nazi authorities to kill thousands of Jews more time-effectively and economically, and that ‘containment’ of typhus then became an excuse to murder even more Jews in gas chambers disguised as ‘delousing baths,’ which could kill up to 2,000 persons at a time (Baumslag, xxiv). This is supported by the memoir of Dr. Olga Lengyel of the Auschwitz concentration camp, who recalled Nazi ‘disinfection’ measures. These measures involved forcing prisoners to stand naked in the cold for hours, risking catching pneumonia in order to have a shower which lasted ‘only a minute,’ whilst their clothing and shoes which had been acquired through great privation were placed in a fumigator from which less clothing than what was taken was returned to the inmates. This suggests that the disinfection of camp internees was part of the extermination plan which ‘only increased the mortality rate’ (Baumslag, 61). The issuance of clear directives for the protection of German troops by Nazi officials, including regular bathing, fresh clothing and issuing vermin-free blankets strongly suggests that the factors which increased the incidence of typhus were known (Baumslag, 67). The fact that these same effective precautions were not extended to the Jewish inmates in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps demonstrates at best severe negligence and at worst that the Nazis advocated the deliberate spread of typhus, using this disease as a weapon of biological warfare to assist in their extermination policy.

In contrast to the inhumane policies adopted by Nazi doctors in the concentration camps, using diary entries and statements from those prisoner doctors and camp inmates who survived the war, Baumslag documents the various ways in which prison doctors were able to offer resistance to the Nazis’ use of typhus as a tool of extermination. For example, Dr. Fleck, a prisoner in the Lvov (Lemberg) ghetto, developed a typhus vaccine and diagnostic test based on human urine in 1942, and demonstrated his superior moral ethic by first vaccinating himself and his family with the trial vaccine, followed by 500 volunteers (Baumslag, 156). Instead of producing this vaccine for German troops in accordance with his task, however, Fleck and his colleagues continued to produce an ineffective but otherwise harmless vaccine for the Wehrmacht, which was used to inject 30,000 German men at the front, whilst 60 litres of effective serum was produced for use by prisoners in the resistance (Baumslag, 157). Other doctors, nurses and prisoners in the camps resisted oppression by smuggling or buying vaccines, such as Dr. Israel Milejkowski of the Warsaw Ghetto, who illegally bought typhus vaccines from Nazi profiteer Dr. Deuhler, in order to protect the Ghetto inhabitants (Baumslag, 107).

Resistance took many forms, as both inmates and prisoner doctors used innovation and utilized what little resources they had in the struggle against the genocidal plans of the Nazis. For example, innovative measures were taken to prevent the harsh repercussions enacted by Nazi personnel in response to an outbreak of typhus, which included the burning down of hospitals as was the case in the Kovno ghetto in October 1941 when the building was boarded up and set alight with sixty-seven patients, doctors and staff inside (Baumslag, 108). These measures included doctors hiding patients suffering from typhus and concealing the incidence from the Nazi doctors to avoid risking the punishment of the whole camp, as was the case with Dr. Adelaide Hautval in the Birkenau death camp, who failed to report the illnesses of typhus patients to Nazi officials (Baumslag, 87). Due to this measure, it is suggested by Emmanel Ringleblum that approximately only 15,449 out of 38,150 cases in the Warsaw Ghetto were reported, demonstrating the extent to which prisoner doctors hid incidence of typhus and therefore risked their own lives to help save others (Baumslag, 96).

Furthermore, Jewish doctors in the ghetto took great risks to falsify charts and statistical reports and to alter diagnoses to ‘influenza’ or ‘fever of unknown origin’ in order to protect the remaining population from harsh Nazi ‘containment’ measures, whilst those infected were hidden and isolated wherever possible to be treated in secrecy (Baumslag, 104). This was the case in October 1942 when a commission of Lithuanian doctors were sent to the Kovno ghetto hospital to inspect the facility after Lithuanian workers had contracted typhus. Jews in the camp had been forced to wash and delouse German soldiers before handing them into the care of Lithuanian workers, thus it was highly suspected that Jewish inmates in the camp would have contracted the disease. Although twenty-nine cases of typhus had already been diagnosed, they were not discovered as the patients were being nursed in secret, and Dr. Moses Brauns, head physician of the Kovno Ghetto’s sanitation and contagious disease department of the Jewish Council, risked his life by using his authority on typhus to convince the Lithuanian doctors that the Lithuanian workers had contracted typhus because they were vaccinated with a live lice preparation while incubating the disease (Baumslag, 109). In this way, Dr, Brauns risked his own life and the lives of others to protect the ghetto inhabitants, helping to secure a death-rate of only 4.3 percent, the death certificates of whom were falsified, leaving no trace of typhus in the ghetto and therefore saving countless lives. The ingenuity of captive doctors and physicians was therefore paramount to the survival of many in the ghettos and concentration camps, who would otherwise have died as a direct result of typhus or by gassing as a consequence of an epidemic outbreak.

Measures to prevent quarantine and most likely death were also practiced by ordinary residents. For example, in one building of the Warsaw Ghetto, the inhabitants took away the identification of one man who had contracted the disease and bribed an official to take him to the ghetto hospital on a rickshaw, where he died as an unknown (Baumslag, 100). This prevented punitive ‘containment’ measures being taken on the remaining residents. Other camp inmates took steps to avoid the disinfection process, which often exposed prisoners to greater risk of illness by exposing them to cold and adverse conditions. This included bribing officials to provide a certificate of delousing, paying other inmates to go to the bathhouse for them, or, as revealed by Vladek Spiegleman, using money to pay for a clean shirt which could be used to demonstrate the absence of lice and therefore typhus (Spiegelman, 94). When inmates were struck with illness, often fellow prisoners would hide and shelter them to avoid them falling prey to the Nazi gas chambers, as indicated by a photograph exhibited by Baumslag in which two prisoners are clearly supporting a sick comrade in a concentration camp roll call to try to avoid his extermination (Baumslag, 111). Memoirs written by survivors of the holocaust reveal similar arrangements were made to protect comrades. For example, Auschwitz concentration camp prisoner Vladek Spiegelman recalled offering fellow inmates bread in return for supporting him as he walked from the camp to the train to escape to Switzerland (Spiegelman, 97).

The measures taken by both prison doctors and ordinary physicians to conceal the incidence of typhus reflect the conclusions of Dr. Brauns, who recognized that the greatest danger for the ghetto ‘did not come from lice but from the attitude of Germans towards the disease’ (Baumslag, 108). As noted by Baumslag, ‘typhus, if suspected, let alone diagnosed, meant death’ (Baumslag, 109). As one prisoner noted, typhus was ‘the ally of the Germans’, thus contrary to German methods for containing typhus which aimed at eradicating the Jewish people as the source of the problem, the camp doctors sought to reduce the incidence of typhus by tackling lice as the transmitters of disease wherever resources permitted. For example, incidence of typhus in the Vilna ghetto was seriously lower than in other ghettos due to the operation of sanitation epidemiological units which supervised cleanliness, whilst a prisoner engineer constructed a bath and disinfection chamber in which groups of twenty people at a time could wash and disinfect clothes without the use of soap (Baumslag, 97). These efforts at prevention, containment and concealment of typhus in both ghettos and concentration camps were a marked act of resistance, in which medical physicians in particular risked their own lives, and used their medical knowledge to try and save the masses from both contracting disease or facing lethal consequences imposed by the Nazis in an effort to ‘contain’ a typhus epidemic.

The actions of German doctors demonstrate a complete contradiction in that typhus was encouraged in Jewish POWs and was used to try to eradicate the Jewish population, yet the same people were also used in experiments to try to find vaccines to immunize Aryan Germans. For example, after one concentration camp doctor claimed that to use rats for medical experimentation would be more expensive than using concentration camp prisoners, Nazi doctors and German pharmaceutical companies began experimenting with live vaccines and drugs on Jews in the Cyste Hospital and Warsaw Ghetto as early as 1939, causing severe reactions and death (Baumslag, 136). This became even more widespread in 1941 when typhus began to take its toll on the front, as German professor Dr. Gerhard Rose began a study of a vaccine created from infected mouse liver on concentration camp prisoners in an effort to develop a preventative vaccine for the German troops (Baumslag, 136). From a medical point of view, therefore, Nazi doctors and physicians involved with experimentation on Jews realized that Jewish and German bodies were the same, yet they continued to advocate the Nazi ideology which cast Jews as a sub-human race and then used this reasoning as justification for the eradication of the Jewish people through genocide. This demonstrates Baumslag’s argument that the atrocities of the Third Reich were facilitated in no small part by the collaboration of educated medical professionals, which she projects as a warning against the effects of the misuse of scientific technology and expertise.

Baumslag argues that during World War II typhus was used as an agent of biological warfare by SS doctors to fuel disease and death in ghettos and concentration camps. This claim is contested by Evelyne Shuster who argues that in order for an act to be defined as biological warfare, one or more countries must be fighting to subjugate another country. According to Schuster, since the Jews did not have a country, the Nazis' manipulation of typhus can only be defined in terms of an abuse of medical knowledge (Schuster, 3305). My view is that the deliberate propagation of disease to cause the deaths of at least 1.5 million people of Jewish heritage cannot simply by written off as medical abuse. To do so would fail to acknowledge the key role played by typhus itself as a biological weapon spreading disease. Although the case if not as clear-cut as, for example, the distributing of blankets infected with small pox to Native Americans in 1763, disease was still knowingly fuelled through severe neglect and ineffective disinfection measures.

Owing to various factors such as hidden cases of typhus, falsified death certificates and discrepancies such as whether Zyklon B was used for disinfection, extermination or both, it is almost impossible to know the true prevalence of typhus or how many lives it claimed. Based on the information available however, it would appear that over 1.5 million people died of typhus, with additional deaths as a result of gassing to contain medical experiments and experiments conducted on Jewish prisoners in an effort to create a vaccine for German troops. What is evident, however, is that the death toll would be significantly higher had it not been for the ingenuity and compassion of the prisoner doctors and inmates themselves, who used their knowledge to protect the health of inmates and deceive the Nazi doctors and officials.


Baumslag, Naomi, Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation and Typhus (Praeger Publishers; 2005).

Shuster, Evelyne, American Society for Clinical Investigation, Volume 115, Issue 12 (December 1 2005).


Spiegelman, Art, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (London, Penguin, 2003).


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Marc S. Micozza, The New England Journal of Medicine Volume 354: 1655, Issue 15 (April 13, 2006).

    Micozzi discusses the importance of Baumslag’s book with regards to the national interest in infectious-disease epidemics and infectious agents in the context of biological warfare and biological weapons, which could be used as an instrument of terror. Micozzi states that using a mix of political and social history alongside medical reporting, Baumslag attempts to discover what went wrong with regards to medical abuse of typhus experimentation in the concentration camps.

  • Evelyne Shuster, American Society for Clinical Investigation Volume 115, Issue 12 (December 1, 2005).

    Shuster comments that the primary purpose of Murderous Medicine is to explain how the epidemic typhus served in the extermination of the Jews, and how the pretence of providing care for retaining typhus actually simply masked the atrocities of gassing and mass-murder. Schuster notes Baumslag’s argument that it was in fact doctors’ views that the disease in need of eradication was Judaism, and not the typhus itself. However, Shuster disagrees that the deliberate spreading of typhus is an example of biological warfare, as the Jewish people, like other groups killed such as homosexuals, did not have their own country.

  • Warren Winkelstein, American Journal of Epidemiology Volume 164, Issue 11 (October 19th 2006).

    Winkelstein recommends Murderous Medicine for its annotated compendium of documents which chronicle the atrocities revealed in the Nuremberg Trials and expands the documentation to reveal widespread application of policies designed to extend the genocide by use of typhus. Winklestein comments that the illustration and extensive documentation will assist students in expanding their knowledge of what he views as the worst example of human depravity on record.

Books and Articles

  • Robert Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge, London: Oxford University Press, 1988).

    In this book, Proctor assesses how scientists and physicians in the Third Reich came to participate in the construction of Nazi racial policy. Much like Baumslag, he rejects the perception of a passive scientific community coerced into cooperating with Nazi policies, and instead attributes many Nazi political initiatives to the contributions of German medical scientists who contributed to setting the agenda. Based on an analysis of contemporary documents including German state archives and medical journals published during the period, Proctor traces the influence of German doctors in the construction of the ‘Jewish problem’ as a ‘medical problem,’ and the subsequent advocacy of a "final solution" to Germany's Jewish problem. An additional chapter devoted to the emergence of a resistance movement among doctors in the Association of Socialist Physicians provides a different angle to those interested in science policy and medical ethics in the Third Reich.

  • Adina Blady Szwajger, I Remember Nothing More: the Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

    This Holocaust memoir was written by a young pediatrician assigned to work in the Warsaw Ghetto. The author, a Polish Jew, recalls her harrowing experiences of Nazi brutality and her involvement in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), where she worked as a courier. This book is a particularly valuable primary source for those investigating the resistance of Jewish doctors to the Third Reich. In addition to working to secure papers and money to allow Jews to escape through the sewers of Warsaw, the author recounts her experiences during the liquidation of the ghetto, where, in an attempt to spare children from Nazi shooting raids, she went to the tuberculosis ward and gave the children each an overdose of morphine.

Relevant Websites

  • Louis Bülow, “Nazi Death Camps.”

    This website provides a camp-by-camp overview of the Holocaust, covering Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. This is a great website for finding the various geographical locations of the different camps, when they began to operate and the different social and ethnic groups who were placed there. The website also provides statistics of the number of Jews and other groups killed in the camps.

  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Doctors Trial: The Medical Case of the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings.”

    This website provides information on the 1946 criminal proceedings against 23 Nazi physicians by the American Military Tribunal. It discusses the various war crimes and crimes against humanity of which the Nazi doctors were accused, and includes experts from the statements and testimonies presented at the Nuremberg Trial. The various sentences given to the doctors are recorded in the words of the judges who presided over the trial, making it a source which has great impact for those studying Nazi medical proceedings.

  • Megan Quinn, “Nazi Experimentations and Nazi Doctors” (2009)

    This website provides a wide range of information on Nazi experimentations and doctors, including a list of over 50 Nazi physicians, their primary form of experimentation and which camp(s) they were working in. The website also contains a list of the locations of the various T4 killing centers, and a list of each concentration/death camp with information on which experiments were performed there, highlighting which doctors conducted them and on which social/ethnic group. It is part of Linda M. Woolf's "Nazi Science: Human Experimentation vs. Human Rights" course website at Webster University in St. Louis.

  • Louis Bülow, "The Nazi Doctors" (2009)

    This website offers a succinct yet informative overview of Nazi medical practice during the Holocaust. Bülow identifies some of the most predominant Nazi physicians who operated in the concentration camps, and details the main experiments in which they were involved, including a reference to Dr. Mengle’s treatment of louse-infected blocks in the Auschwitz camp by gassing the inhabitants. The content of the website is supported by multiple photographs of both the Nazi doctors and victims of Nazi experiments. The Nuremberg Medical Trial of October 1946 to August1947 is briefly documented, revealing the various sentences handed to the twenty-three German physicians and scientists who were put on trial for their murders, tortures and brutalities. Case studies of physicians including the infamous Dr. Mengle and Dr. Carl Clauberg make Bülow’s webpage a particularly useful supplement to Baumslag’s Murderous Medicine.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Rebecca Elliott on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10
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