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OMA blog
Jan. 27, 2020

Medicine and the Holocaust – Not On Our Watch

January 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, the largest of many during the Holocaust.  More than six million Jews and others were killed during World War II.  The enormity of the inhumanity and horror of this terrible time in the world’s history is impossible to fathom.  We all must do everything we can to make sure it is not forgotten, and never repeated.

The lessons learned are particularly important to our medical students and the broader medical community. Before and during World War II, members of the German medical profession violated their Hippocratic oaths, supporting and taking part in unethical experiments.  They also designed and helped operate the gas chambers, murdering millions.

I want young doctors to know this history, because that is the best way of ensuring it does not happen again.  That is why I introduced a motion before the annual fall council of the Ontario Medical Association. Months earlier, the noted medical journal The Lancet had run a commentary written by Editor Richard Horton, in which he urged that the Holocaust be included in the curriculum of health professionals. I moved that the OMA endorse and promote this proposal. I was greeted by loud applause, and the motion was carried unanimously. For this, I am enormously grateful and proud of my colleagues and the OMA.

I want to be clear that in my experience with young doctors, and I have taught many of them, almost all are highly motivated to help people. What happened was a slippery slope, where small ethical compromises were made first in the name of science, and then in the name of power. These led to bigger ethical compromises, followed by bigger ones still. At some point, I suppose they stopped feeling like compromises at all. 

I have been asked if I really believe that this could happen again. And my answer is, sadly, yes. We must always be aware that there is potential for abuse in any system where power resides, and doctors have real power in society. They have enormous influence over the lives of individuals and communities. In addition, medicine is a hierarchical profession, where obedience to that hierarchy is demanded. And medicine today has seen developments such as genomics that could give rise to all types of ethical lapses. Consider all those things in the context of a world where anti-Semitism is once again very much on the rise. Tragically it could all happen again. But hopefully it will not. It must not. And if the next generation of doctors is well aware of the risks, and nobody ever makes that first ethical compromise, it will not.

That is my dream. I am now an old, child-survivor of the Holocaust, and before I die I would like to know that my colleagues and I helped put in place a bulwark against anti-Semitism, and particularly against the compliance of my profession with that of any racist movement. Teaching medical students would help them start their careers with a stronger moral compass, an awareness of the dangers that exist, and a belief in the importance of ethically regulating research and practice.

In the coming months, I will reach out to medical schools and medical students, to explore ways of adding the Holocaust to the curriculum of health professionals. I have already heard interest in this idea expressed, by both students and schools. This gives me great hope, as did the enthusiasm of my colleagues for my motion. Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz seems a very good time to take a big step to ensuring that nothing of that terrible history happens again. Let this generation of doctors say to the next, not on our watch.