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The Nazi War on Cancer by Robert N. Proctor
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The Nazi War on Cancer

by Robert N. Proctor

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There's a lot of interesting material in this book: Nazi ideas of the proper diet, indications that the Nazi Institute for Cancer Research may have been a cover for developing bioweapons, and, of course, the chapter that has garnered the most attention: "The Campaign Against Tobacco". Throughout the book Proctor uses the Nazi concern with cancer to show that Nazi science, while often motivated by bizarre or evil notions, wasn't always shoddy. He also shows that it's a mistake to think of Nazi Germany as a totalitarian monolith that always reflected Hitler's will.

For instance, while Hitler wanted to eventually ban smoking, he was ultimately defeated by cultural resistance to the notion and the desire to keep tobacco taxes coming in and tobacco exports leaving. Still, it was Nazi science that first indicated that smoking was harmful though its general emphasis on clinical studies with few patients caused it to be ignored by epidemiologists in other countries. However, the Anglo-American scientists who made their reputations by proving that smoking was a major cause of lung cancer were preceded more than 10 years by Franz H. Muller's dissertation on that link, the first "case-control epidemiologic" study to do so. And he did it in 1939 Germany.

Besides its material on Nazi scientific efforts to diagnose, cure, and prevent cancer, the book also has some very interesting illustrations of Nazi public health propaganda. My favorite illustration, though, is of various animals giving the "Heil" salute to Goering who banned vivisection in 1933.

My one quibble with the book is Proctor's insistence that his book provides no aid and comfort to those, like libertarian Jacob Sullum -- whose book FOR YOUR OWN GOOD: THE ANTI-SMOKING CRUSADE AND THE TYRANNY OF PUBLIC HEALTH is specifically mentioned in the final chapter -- who wish to link anti-smoking efforts with Nazis. I've never heard any anti-smoking activist propose euthanasia programs or putting people in concentration camps. However, the Nazi regime justified its coercive public health measures with the philosophy that your body was state property and "nutrition was not a private matter". And, as in modern America, economic rationales were given for the Nazi laws intended to make life difficult for smokers. Proctor also speculates, in the Prologue, that public health measures like the Nazi war on tobacco could have been one of the appealing tunes in the siren suite of Hitler's fascism. Not everyone became a Nazi to kill Jews. And not all the doctors who signed up with the Nazi Party were quacks. This book does provide some evidence that coercive public health measures that go beyond mere education can spring from a totalitarian impulse. ( )
  RandyStafford | Nov 3, 2011 |
This is an excellent book that not only provides a detailed look at science and medicine as it was practiced in the Third Reich, as well as how that government institutionally directed the focus of science, but it also raises important questions about what constitutes good or bad science. Is valid science performed for evil intent good science - good in the sense of usable and valid for other purposes? ( )
  AlexTheHunn | Mar 28, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0691070512, Paperback)

Familiar as we are with the horrific history of Nazi medicine and science, it may come as a surprise to learn that the Nazi war against cancer was the most aggressive in the world. Robert N. Proctor's thought-provoking book, The Nazi War on Cancer recounts this little-known story. The Nazis were very concerned about protecting the health of the "Volk." Cancer was seen as a growing threat--and perhaps even held a special place in Adolf Hitler's imagination (his mother, Klara, died from breast cancer in 1907). The Nazi doctors fought their war against cancer on many fronts, battling environmental and workplace hazards (restrictions on the use of asbestos) and recommending food standards (bans on carcinogenic pesticides and food dyes) and early detection ("men were advised to get their colons checked as often as they would check the engines of their cars..."). Armed with the world's most sophisticated tobacco-disease epidemiology--they were the first to link smoking to lung cancer definitively--Nazi doctors were especially passionate about the hazards of tobacco. Hitler himself was a devout nonsmoker, and credited his political success to kicking the habit. Proctor does an excellent job of charting these anticancer efforts--part of what he terms "the 'flip side' of fascism"--and, along the way, touches on some unsettling issues. Can an immoral regime promote and produce morally responsible science? Or, in Proctor's words, "Do we look at history differently when we learn that ... Nazi health officials worried about asbestos-induced lung cancer? I think we do. We learn that Nazism was a more subtle phenomenon than we commonly imagine, more seductive, more plausible."

Proctor is no apologist--one of his earlier books, Racial Hygiene is a scathing account of Nazi atrocities--but he clearly wants to engage in the complex moral discussions surrounding the fascist production of science and Holocaust studies. Proctor's thorough research, excellent examples, and dozens of illustrations are complemented by his authoritative prose. The Nazi War on Cancer is a fine addition to the literature on both the Holocaust and the history of medicine. --C.B. Delaney

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:33:08 -0400)

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"Proctor began this book after discovering documents showing that the Nazis conducted the most aggressive antismoking campaign in modern history. Further research revealed that Hitler's government passed a wide range of public health measures, including restrictions on asbestos, radiation, pesticides, and food dyes. ... Proctor shows that cancer also became an important social metaphor, as the Nazis portrayed Jews and other 'enemies of the Volk' as tumors that must be eliminated from the German body politic."--Jacket.… (more)

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