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Hitler provided financial backing for ground-breaking study of smoking and lung cancer

Ground-breaking research on lung cancer and smoking carried out by German scientists Professor Dietrich Eberhard Schairer and Erich Schöniger during the Second World War has been translated into English for the first time. The study is published in the forthcoming International Journal of Epidemiology [Vol 30 No 1, February 26 2001].

Today, virtually everyone is aware that smoking is bad for health and that tobacco is a major cause of lung cancer, but few are aware of the scientific history of how this came to be revealed. Most people think that the discovery was by US and British scientists in the early 1950s.

However Schairer and Schöniger carried out a methodologically sound study and demonstrated a very strong link between smoking and lung cancer. In their study, which was first published in 1943, very few non-smokers developed lung cancer, with the risk being 16 times higher among heavy smokers. The results were virtually identical to those seen in the better known studies carried out by Sir Richard Doll and others after the Second World War.

The work of German war-time scientists was sometimes unavailable outside Germany and their work was often ignored as it was seen as either Nazi propaganda or tainted by the Nazi connection. Nazi Germany was governed by a health-conscious political elite, bent on European conquest and genocidal extermination. The Nazi ideology not only professed 'racial purity' but was also obsessed with the purity of food, water and air.

Tobacco at this time was viewed as one among many 'threats' to the health of the chosen Volk. Nazi anti-tobacco activists were quick to point out that the three Fascist leaders of Europe - Hitler, Mussolini and Franco - did not smoke, but that the three prominent Allied leaders - Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin - did. Hitler was an avid anti-smoker, and contributed the major funding to the institute where the research was carried out.

The translation of the original paper is accompanied by commentaries which consider the historical context and legacy of the paper. In one of these Robert Proctor remarks: 'Today Germans present the history of tobacco and cancer research as if it were entirely an Anglo-American affair, ignoring local contributions. The fear may be that by acknowledging such work they would be accepting Nazi ideals or policy.'

Professor George Davey Smith, editor of the International Journal of Epidemiology, said: 'The abhorrent legacy of the Nazis, and especially the memory of the medical experiments of Mengele and his collaborators, means that we have overlooked any positive scientific contributions from this era, and this is one such example. An historical view of the development of science leads to many intriguing insights.

'While we distance ourselves from the immorality of Nazi medicine, it is ironic that in many ways in Britain and America we now view smoking as the Nazis themselves did in the 1930s and 1940s – we view it as on the one hand a public health pariah, and on the other as an important means of tax revenue. Similarly, the tobacco industry has tried to use the fact that the Nazis were against smoking to discredit the clear evidence that smoking is highly detrimental to health.'

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Copyright: 2001 The University of Bristol, UK
Updated: Thursday, 01-Mar-2001 17:38:25 GMT