To cel­e­brate the pub­li­ca­tion of her teen non­fic­tion book, For the Good of Mankind?: The Shame­ful His­to­ry of Human Med­ical Exper­i­men­ta­tion (Lern­er Pub­lish­ing Group), Vic­ki Oran­sky Wit­ten­stein is trav­el­ing around the web on a blog tour. Today’s stop is the JBC’s Pros­en­Peo­ple. Below, she dis­cuss­es her research for the book and how she came to bet­ter under­stand the com­plex issues sur­round­ing human med­ical experimentation:

When I first start­ed research­ing the top­ic of human med­ical exper­i­men­ta­tion, I knew that the Nazi exper­i­ments would play a crit­i­cal role in the book. I was wor­ried. I had nev­er spo­ken to a Holo­caust sur­vivor before, let alone some­one who had been a vic­tim of bru­tal exper­i­men­ta­tion. Even the thought of read­ing the details of the exper­i­ments upset me. I had vis­it­ed the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. sev­er­al years ago, and had been shak­en with dis­gust and dis­be­lief. How was I going to write about this top­ic for younger audi­ences if I, an adult, couldn’t even stom­ach the horror?

I start­ed my research on the Nazi exper­i­ments by read­ing a won­der­ful book by George J. Annas and Michael A. Grodin, The Nazi Doc­tors and the Nurem­berg Code: Human Rights in Human Exper­i­men­ta­tion (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1992), a col­lec­tion of schol­ar­ly essays and pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments about the Nurem­berg Doc­tors’ Tri­al, the Nazi doc­tors who sanc­tioned racial hygiene, and the impor­tance of the Nurem­berg Code in study­ing human rights today. Eva Mozes Kor, a twin and sur­vivor of Dr. Joseph Mengele’s exper­i­ments on twins, wrote one of the essays in the book. With an hon­est voice, Eva described her ter­ri­fy­ing jour­ney as a ten year old from a small vil­lage in Poland to Auschwitz, and what she had endured at the hands of Dr. Men­gele and oth­er doc­tors at the con­cen­tra­tion camp. 

Eva was my answer to writ­ing about this dif­fi­cult sub­ject. Her sim­ple, clear descrip­tions, writ­ten with obvi­ous pain, awak­ened me to sev­er­al real­iza­tions. First, that any­one who could write pub­licly about such hor­ror was some­one who might speak to me. And sec­ond, recount­ing Eva’s sto­ry would be an appro­pri­ate vehi­cle for pre­sent­ing such heinous crimes to a young audi­ence. Young peo­ple would be able to fath­om the inhu­man­i­ty of the exper­i­ments through the authen­tic­i­ty of hear­ing a survivor’s voice.

With more research, I learned that Eva was the founder of the CAN­DLES Holo­caust Muse­um and Edu­ca­tion Cen­ter in Terre Haute, Indi­ana, where she even­tu­al­ly set­tled after World War II. Eva set up the muse­um to edu­cate the world about the Holo­caust and the exper­i­ments on twins.

Eva is a coura­geous woman. Her sto­ry of sur­vival is remark­able. After an ill­ness land­ed her in the camp’s hos­pi­tal — the last stop along the path to death for most of the twin sub­jects — she fig­ured out how to manip­u­late the ther­mome­ter, steal water, and con­vince the doc­tors that she was well enough to go back to the bar­racks. Many years after she and her twin sis­ter Miri­am were freed from the camp, Miri­am died even­tu­al­ly of a kid­ney prob­lem she acquired from injec­tions admin­is­tered by doc­tors at Auschwitz.

This pho­to was tak­en in 1945 when Auschwitz was lib­er­at­ed. Eva Kors is at the far right 
and her twin sis­ter Miri­am is stand­ing next to her.

After speak­ing to Eva and then learn­ing about the plight of oth­er inmates who were sub­ject­ed to exper­i­men­ta­tion, I was sur­prised to learn how lit­tle an impact the Nurem­berg Tri­als ini­tial­ly cast on med­ical exper­i­men­ta­tion in the U.S. It wasn’t until 1981 — in the wake of rev­e­la­tions about the Tuskegee syphilis exper­i­ments on African Amer­i­can men — that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment adopt­ed the Com­mon Rule, a set of reg­u­la­tions that guide research in human med­ical exper­i­men­ta­tion. Amer­i­can doc­tors, who believed they were exper­i­ment­ing for the good of mankind,” thought that the Nazi atroc­i­ties were not rel­e­vant to their work. But while exper­i­ments con­duct­ed by U.S. doc­tors were not com­pa­ra­ble to the Nazi hor­rors, many orphans, pris­on­ers, the men­tal­ly ill, and oth­ers with lit­tle pow­er or voice, were sub­ject­ed to exper­i­men­ta­tion with­out vol­un­tary con­sent for hun­dreds of years. 

After inter­view­ing sev­er­al promi­nent bioethi­cists, I have come to bet­ter under­stand the com­plex issues sur­round­ing human med­ical exper­i­men­ta­tion. For cen­turies, physi­cians have test­ed treat­ments, vac­cines, and med­i­cines on peo­ple. With­out a doubt, new med­ical dis­cov­er­ies and tech­nolo­gies require human exper­i­men­ta­tion. The dif­fi­cult chal­lenge lies in bal­anc­ing the individual’s risk of injury with the needs of society. 

Today, Eva spreads the word that sci­en­tif­ic advance­ment must nev­er be a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for sac­ri­fic­ing human dig­ni­ty. She lec­tures around the world, leads tours at Auschwitz, and reach­es out to twin sur­vivors. I felt hon­ored to recount her sto­ry in my book. 

Vic­ki Oran­sky Wit­ten­stein has always been curi­ous about new ideas, peo­ple, and places. That curios­i­ty has tak­en her life in many dif­fer­ent direc­tions. So far, she has been a stu­dent, a crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tor, a writer, and an advo­cate for chil­dren and fam­i­lies. She is the author of a num­ber of sci­ence and his­to­ry arti­cles for young read­ers, as well as the book Plan­et Hunter: Geoff Mar­cy and the Search for Oth­er Earths, which won the 2013 Sci­ence Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Award from the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Physics. She lives with her fam­i­ly in Brook­lyn, New York. For more infor­ma­tion, and for a free dis­cus­sion guide, vis­it http://​vicki​wit​ten​stein​.com/.