Intercom Online......June 17, 1999


Robert Proctor's extensive research into science in Nazi Germany is detailed in his new book,
The Nazi War on Cancer, published this year.

Photo: Greg Grieco

1930s fascism spawned
public health initiatives

By A'ndrea Elyse Messer

Public Information

Anti-tobacco campaigns, whole grain breads, breast self-examination and control of carcinogens in the workplace are normal approaches to preventing or controlling cancer today, but according to a science historian, in the 1930s and 1940s, it was actually Nazi Germany that pioneered many such practices.

"Nazism took root in the world's most powerful scientific culture boasting half of the world's Nobel Prizes and a sizable fraction of the world's patents," said Robert N. Proctor, professor of the history of science. "The story of science under German fascism cannot be just a narrative of suppression and survival. We also have to explain how and why Nazi ideology promoted certain areas of inquiry, how research was turned and twisted, how projects and policies came and went with the movement of political forces."

In his research, Proctor charts the path of Nazi science and medicine throughout many different twists and turns, focusing on cancer. The atrocities and injustices of Nazi Germany are not ignored, but Proctor is primarily interested in how the philosophies that created concentration camps, mass sterilization and "racial hygiene" influenced other, less well-known aspects of public health and safety.

"In the Nazi period, health officials developed safeguards against exposure to deadly chemical toxins at the same time the efforts were also under way to use some of those very same toxins to kill millions of Jews and Gypsies," said Proctor. His research has been published in the new book, The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton University Press, 1999).

The Nazi effort against cancer took many forms, including nutritional and diet therapeutics, mitigation of occupational hazards such as asbestos and an aggressive anti-tobacco program. Hitler's vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco influenced preventive approaches, as did the increasing scarcity of supplies in a country long at war.

On the dietary front, efforts were not always simply for human health benefits, but also for economic health benefits. White bread was bad because it was deemed a "French revolutionary invention" and white flour because it was chemically treated. However, white bread also cost more to bake. Eating less bleached flour, meat, sugar and fat was not only healthy, but also economically sound.

The Nazi war against tobacco took many forms. Tobacco advertising was restricted and regulations were imposed to limit smoking by women and children. Basic science initiatives also were launched.

"The startling truth is that it was actually in Nazi Germany that the link was originally established (between cigarettes and lung cancer)," writes Proctor. "German tobacco epidemiology was, in fact, for a time, the most advanced in the world, as were many other aspects of the anti-tobacco effort."

Proctor believes that the recognition of the dangers of tobacco was fostered by a political climate stressing the virtues of racial hygiene and bodily purity. In racial hygiene journals, smoking was associated with rebellion, jazz and swing dancing, degenerate blacks, Jews and Gypsies. Anti-smoking posters used inflammatory and insulting images of Africans, Jews and Indians.

Detection, prevention and treatment of cancer were important in Nazi medicine and an effort to gain good statistical control of a cancer registry was an early goal. However, because one in eight German physicians was Jewish, the regulations prohibiting Jewish doctors from treating anyone other than Jews severely disrupted the cancer registry and similar restrictions in universities strongly affected research.

Proctor shows that public health initiatives were launched in the name of national socialism and that Nazi ideals informed the practice and popularization of science, guiding it, motivating it and reorienting it in ways we are only beginning to appreciate.

"The Nazi war on cancer has been ignored because we do not seem to be comfortable with the idea that people with rotten ethical ideas could have been 'ahead of their time' in spheres of medicine and public health," Proctor said.

While Nazi medicine is remembered for its atrocities, that is only part of its lesson and that alone would distort our understanding, according to Proctor.

"The Nazi campaign against tobacco and the 'whole grain bread operation' are, in some sense, as fascist as the yellow stars and the death camps," said Proctor. "Understanding such complexities may better allow us to understand how even many right-thinking Germans supported Hitler."

Grant to aid study of development of nervous system

James T. Warren Jr., assistant professor of biology at Penn State Erie, has received a $75,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study genetic development. The funding will permit Warren to pursue his work in understanding the regenerative processes that follow spinal cord injury.

Warren is among scientists around the world making history in the ongoing study how we grow from a single cell to a complex many-celled organism. The $75,000 Academic Research Enhancement Award he received from the NIH will allow him to continue his study of the genes involved in the development of the vertebrate nervous system.

These funds are given only to undergraduate institutions that prepare students for graduate study or for careers in medicine, Warren said.

In the 1980s scientists used the fruit fly (Drosophila) to unravel genetic mysteries, but in recent years they have adopted the zebrafish, a small aquarium fish, as a model for studying and understanding the genes involved in governing human embryonic development.

Warren's research focuses on understanding the molecules that guide the growth of nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord of the zebrafish. Because early development is prompted by sets of genes that are comparable in zebrafish and humans, researchers realize the benefits of using zebrafish for genetic study.

Another advantage of zebrafish is that they develop outside the mother, and their embryos are so transparent that scientists can see almost every developing cell.

Warren has found evidence that the direction of growth cones, the motile sensory structures that guide the ends of growing nerve fibers in zebrafish, may be influenced by a molecule called TAG-1 (transiently expressed axonal glycoprotein).

In his research, he hopes to determine the precise role that TAG-1 has in the development and growth of nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord.

"A better understanding of the molecular mechanisms of growth cone guidance in zebrafish should lead us to a better understanding of the human regenerative processes following brain and spinal cord injury," said Warren.

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