Nobel Laureates on ethics
Three Nobel Laureates gathered in the University of Houston’s Cullen Performance Hall to start off the Medical Ethics and the Holocaust lecture series presented by Holocaust Museum Houston last night.
James Watson, Eric Kandel and Ferid Murad discussed the significance doctors played in Adolf Hitler’s Germany and how that affects society today.
"The question is will future medical professionals ask should they become involved in eugenics," Sheldon Rubenfeld, M.D and chair of the steering committee responsible for the "Medical Ethics and the Holocaust" lecture series.
The series consists of 15 lectures that began Sunday and will continue until January 2008 at the Holocaust Museum Houston.
Hitler’s ideas of his master race came from Indiana in 1907, when the first involuntary sterilization law was passed. By the 1920s, 28 states had similar laws, which were changed after the World War II.
"Hitler’s Germany did what the United States couldn’t do," Watson said. A 1962 Nobel Prize winner of medicine, Watson worked along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in discovering of the structure of DNA.
Hitler used those laws to support his ideas that the Jews were behind Germany’s fall after World War I in his propaganda.
"Eugenics didn’t proceed in the United States like it did in Germany because of the checks and balances in society," Kandel said.
Kandel, a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard, helped identify signal transduction in the nervous system.
Watson, a Harvard biology professor, said in his lecture that eugenics was coined by Francis Galton and comes from a combination of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and social engineering, which is intended to promote aristocratic ideals.
While in prison, Hitler read Eugenics, which influenced his views on racial purity and what society should strive toward.
From the 1890s to 1910s, the United States was subject to a major wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. People resented these new arrivals and felt they carried diseases like alcoholism and criminal activity, Watson said.
"Psychiatrists were beginning to sterilize the mentally retarded proceeding Hitler," Kandel said. "So the idea that physicians could be involved isn’t surprising."
When the world realized the implications of eugenics contributed to the horror of the Holocaust, many scientists pushed eugenic thinking aside.
"Recently some of the ideas are becoming relevant," Murad said. "Questions of who should control genetic information and designer babies are being asked."
Among the fears is that insurance companies will refuse services if a person’s genetic disposition is favorable for a given disease. Others worry only certain social classes will have access to unnecessary enhancements.
"We should just weed out serious disease, and then leave it up to individual decisions," Kandel said. Kandel, an immigrant, escaped persecution from Hitler’s regime in 1939 and has been a professor at Columbia University since 1983.
For more information on the lecture series, visit the Holocaust Museum’s Web site at www.hmh.org.