Sheila Faith Weiss hopes people can learn from history

how easy it is to compromise our ethics when we move step by step away from our moral values.

The Clarkson history professor is embarking on a biography of Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, perhaps Germany’s most controversial human geneticist of the 20th century who worked under the Third Reich. Her project is supported by a $277,000 National Science Foundation grant.

Von Verschuer was mentor to the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, otherwise known as the “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz. Mengele sent data and sometimes body parts to von Verschuer that supported the latter’s genetic research, which primarily focused on twins. Mengele hoped to profit professionally from his collaboration with his former doctoral advisor. At the time, von Verschuer was director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin.

Professor Sheila WeissWeiss says her research will, in part, examine “the ethical lessons we can take away from this study of a man who, in a sense, made a Faustian bargain with a devilish regime.” She said von Verschuer seems not to have been a horrible person by nature, but someone who started making ethical compromises and was “pulled into a direction he perhaps did not wish to go, when all of a sudden he finds himself in the moral abyss.”

Von Verschuer’s career spanned from 1919 to 1969, which covered four periods of German history: the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, Allied Occupation and the early decades of West Germany.

“I don’t believe that in 1933 von Verschuer could have ever imagined getting himself involved in research that involved involuntary subjects at Auschwitz — work that frequently led to their death,” said Weiss, “but by 1943, owing to all the small ethical compromises made along the way, he found himself engaged in just such medical transgressions.”

She hopes people learn from her work “that it’s these small steps we’re not aware of, accommodations we do not think much about at the time we make them, which could lead us to places we could hardly have earlier imagined.”

Weiss says that it is natural for scientists to find common cause with the regime they find themselves in so that they can secure research funding. Von Verschuer not only made the necessary accommodations to work with the Nazis, but with democratic governments as well. “So the same man who collaborated with Mengele in the Third Reich ultimately gained a position in the post-war period and became one of West Germany’s leading medical geneticists until his death in 1969,” said Weiss. How this was possible is a central part of the story she has to tell.

She believes her biography will also help people realize that they need to contribute to the public debates surrounding new and emerging genetic technologies. “The study will help eliminate black-and-white thinking about the moral issues we face stemming from biomedical developments in the 21st century. The lay public needs to be intellectually armed for the debates that will surely come; we cannot leave these important policy decisions up to the scientists.”

Weiss says it's not easy to weigh the deaths of six million people in Nazi concentration camps against her historical obligations not to judge her subject. “It’s a very difficult balancing act and I think it takes some finessing to find the proper framework to contextualize this story — to write a biography of ‘the man in full’,” she says.

The new project continues Weiss’ work involving the history of human genetics and eugenics in Germany. Her latest book, The Nazi Synthesis: Human Heredity and Politics in the Third Reich, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2010. It was funded by an $86,000 NSF grant.

Weiss has authored many articles and has received several fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and two Fulbright awards to Germany. In 2006, she was the Daimler-Chrysler Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.