The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the controversy surrounding the Hubertus Strughold Award given by the American Space Medicine Association. Strughold was head of the Luftwaffe’s prominent Aeromedical Research Institute during World War II and likely oversaw experimentation on prisoners at Dachau. This probably included the notorious hypothermia or “cold experiments,” which may have laid the foundation for his work in space medicine for the U.S. government. Strughold was one of many scientists who were part of the “intellectual reparations” paid to the U.S. following the war, a program known as Operation Paperclip (for information on Paperclip, link here for the Jewish Virtual Library article). Strughold would go on to become the “Father of Space Medicine” and have an award named in his honor in 1963.
Among the reports filed by the Nuremberg Trials, there is both a numbering of Strughold among those involved in experimentation at Dachau and a record of his denial of involvement on “grounds of medical ethics.” So, there is still some debate on his legacy as a medical researcher. However, the story of Hubertus Strughold, with its origin in Germany and its meanderings in the United States, may offer us useful lessons in ethics. This case may bring to light something that could be the Achilles heel of American culture and, in turn, American medicine. There often seems to be a tendency among us to partition our lives in such a way as to avoid culpability. Strughold never had any political involvement in the U.S. during his lifetime and was probably viewed simply as an “intellectual asset,” a source of data much like a laptop. It’s the data were after in the long run, so as long as there is a consent form on file with a signature at the bottom, we move ahead. Of course, that’s not the case at all. Ethics involves human beings; and not only the human being that is the patient but the human being that is the researcher or the physician.
The Space Medicine Association has no page for the Hubertus Strughold Award on its website, but it does have a page with an interesting quote by Wernher von Braun: “Man is not made for space. But with the help of biologists and medical doctors, he can be prepared and accommodated.”