Researching and reporting shocking stories like this one can only make me more enemies, I know. Yet I do think they need to be told; if we cannot learn from history, what hope is there?
I first became aware of Sigmund Rascher‘s work when I was studying the effects of temperature on blood rheology at the University of Munich. I then leant of Rascher’s unspeakably cruel experiments on exposing humans to extreme hypothermia in the Dachau concentration camp. Many of his ‘volunteers’ had lost their lives, and the SS-doctor Rascher later became the symbol of a ‘Nazi doctor from hell’. In 1990, R L Berger aptly described Rascher and his sadistic pseudo-science in his NEJM article:
“Sigmund Rascher was born in 1909. He started his medical studies in 1930 and joined both the Nazi party and the storm troopers (the SA) three years later. After a volunteer internship, Rascher served for three years as an unpaid surgical assistant. He was barred temporarily from the University of Munich for suspected Communist sympathies. In 1939, the young doctor denounced his physician father, joined the SS, and was inducted into the Luftwaffe. A liaison with and eventual marriage to Nini Diehl, a widow 15 years his senior who was a one-time cabaret singer but also the former secretary and possibly mistress of the Reichsführer, gained Rascher direct access to Himmler. A strange partnership evolved between the junior medical officer and one of the highest officials of the Third Reich. One week after their first meeting, Rascher presented a “Report on the Development and Solution to Some of the Reichsführer’s Assigned Tasks During a Discussion Held on April 24, 1939.” The title of this paper foretold the character of the ensuing relationship between the two men. Because of Rascher’s servile and ingratiating approach to Himmler, his “connections were so strong that practically every superior trembled in fear of the intriguing Rascher who consequently held a position of enormous power.
Rascher’s short investigative career included a leading role in the infamous high-altitude experiments on humans at Dachau, which resulted in 70 to 80 deaths. He was also involved in testing a plant extract as a cure for cancer. The genesis of this project illustrates Rascher’s style and influence. Professor Blome, the deputy health minister and plenipotentiary for cancer research, favored testing the extract in mice. Rascher insisted on experiments in humans. Himmler sided with Rascher. A Human Cancer Testing Station was set up at Dachau. The deputy health minister collaborated on the project, held approximately 20 meetings with Rascher, and visited the junior officer at Dachau several times.
Another of Rascher’s major research efforts focused on the introduction of a pectin-based preparation, Polygal, to promote blood clotting. He predicted that the prophylactic use of Polygal tablets would reduce bleeding from wounds sustained in combat or during surgical procedures. The agent was also recommended for the control of spontaneous gastrointestinal and pulmonary hemorrhages. Combat wounds were simulated by the amputation of the viable extremities of camp prisoners without anesthesia or by shooting the prisoners through the neck and chest.
Rascher also claimed that oral premedication with Polygal minimized bleeding during major surgical procedures, rendering hemostatic clips or ligatures unnecessary and shortening operating times. He published an enthusiastic article about his clinical experience with Polygal, without specifying the nature of some of the trials in humans. The paper concluded, “The tests of this medicine ‘Polygal 10’ showed no failures under the most varied circumstances.” Rascher also formed a company to manufacture Polygal and used prisoners to work in the factory. A prisoner who was later liberated testified that Rascher’s enthusiasm for Polygal’s antiinfectious properties was probably sparked by news of the introduction of penicillin by the Allies and by his eagerness to reap fame and receive the award established for inventing a German equivalent. He initiated experiments in humans apparently without any preliminary laboratory testing. In one experiment, pus was injected into the legs of prisoners. The experimental group was given Polygal. The controls received no treatment. Information filtered to Dr. Kurt Plotner, Rascher’s physician rival, that the controls were given large, deep subcutaneous inoculations, whereas the victims in the experiments received smaller volumes of pus injected intracutaneously. Plotner reportedly investigated the matter and discovered that the Polygal used was saline colored with a fluorescent dye.
The frequent references to Rascher in top-level documents indicate that this junior medical officer attracted extraordinary attention from Germany’s highest officials. His work was reported even to Hitler, who was pleased with the accounts. Rascher was not well regarded in professional circles, however, and his superiors repeatedly expressed reservations about his performance. In one encounter, Professor Karl Gebhardt, a general in the SS and Himmler’s personal physician, told Rascher in connection with his experiments on hypothermia through exposure to cold air that “the report was unscientific; if a student of the second term dared submit a treatise of the kind [Gebhardt] would throw him out.” Despite Himmler’s strong support, Rascher was rejected for faculty positions at several universities. A book by German scientists on the accomplishments of German aviation medicine during the war devoted an entire chapter to hypothermia but failed to mention Rascher’s name or his work.”
For those who can stomach the sickening tale, a very detailed biography of Rascher is available here.
I had hoped to never hear of this monster of a man again – yet, more recently, I came across Rascher in the context of alternative medicine. Rascher had been brought up in Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical tradition, and his very first ‘research’ project was on a alternantive blood test developed in anthroposophy.
A close friend of Rascher, the anthroposoph and chemist Ehrenfried Pfeiffer had developed a bizarre diagnostic method using copper chloride crystallization of blood and other materials. This copper chloride biocrystallization (CCBC) became the subject of Rascher’s dissertation in Munich. Rascher first tried the CCBC for diagnosing pregnancies and later for detecting early cancer (incidentally, he conducted this work in the very same building where I worked for many years, about half a century later). The CCBC involves a visual evaluation of copper crystals which form with blood or other fluids; the method is, of course, wide open to interpretation. Bizarrely, the CCBC is still used by some anthroposophical or homeopathic doctors today – see, for instance, this recent article or this website, this website or this website which explains:
“Hierbei werden einige Tropfen Blut mit Kupferchlorid in einer Klimakammer zur Kristallisation gebracht.
Jahrzehntelange Erfahrung ermöglicht eine ganz frühe Hinweisdiagnostik sowohl für alle Funktionsschwächen der Organe, auch z.B. der Drüsen, als auch für eine Krebserkrankung. Diese kann oft so früh erkannt werden, daß sie sich mit keiner anderen Methode sichern läßt.” My translation: “A few drops of blood are brought to crystallisation with copper chloride in a climate chamber. Decades of experience allow a very early diagnosis of all functional weaknesses of the organs and glands as well as of cancer. Cancer can often be detected earlier than with any other method.”
The reference to ‘decades of experience’ is more than ironic because the evidence suggesting that the CCBC might be valid originates from Rascher’s work in the 1930s; to the best of my knowledge no other ‘validation’ of the CCBC has ever become available. With his initial thesis, Rascher had produced amazingly positive results and subsequently lobbied to get an official research grant for testing the CCBC’s usefulness in cancer diagnosis. Intriguingly, he had to disguise the CCBC’s connection to anthroposophy; even though taken by most other alternative medicines, the Nazis had banned the Steiner cult.
Most but not all of Rascher’s research was conducted in the Dachau concentration camp where in 1941 a research unit was established in ‘block 5’ which, according to Rascher’s biographer, Sigfried Baer, contained his department and a homeopathic research unit led by Hanno von Weyherns and Rudolf Brachtel (1909-1988). I found the following relevant comment about von Weyherns: “Zu Jahresbeginn 1941 wurde in der Krankenabteilung eine Versuchsstation eingerichtet, in der 114 registrierte Tuberkulosekranke homöopathisch behandelt wurden. Leitender Arzt war von Weyherns. Er erprobte im Februar biochemische Mittel an Häftlingen.” My translation: At the beginning of 1941, an experimental unit was established in the sick-quarters in which 114 patients with TB were treated homeopathically. The chief physician was von Weyherns. In February, he tested Schuessler Salts [a derivative of homeopathy still popular in Germany today] on prisoners.
Today, all experts believe Rascher’s results, even those on CCBC, to be fraudulent. Rascher seems to have been not merely an over-ambitious yet mediocre physician turned sadistic slaughterer of innocent prisoners, he also was a serial falsifier of research data. It is likely that his fraudulent thesis on the anthroposophic blood test set him off on a life-long career of consummate research misconduct.
Before the end of the Third Reich, Rascher lost the support of Himmler and was imprisoned for a string of offences which were largely unrelated to his ‘research’. He was eventually brought back to the place of his worst atrocities, the concentration camp in Dachau. Days before the liberation of the camp by the US forces, Rascher was executed under somewhat mysterious circumstances. In my view, the CCBC should have vanished with him.