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10-27-2009

Clarkson University Prof to Write Biography of Auschwitz Angel of Death’s Mentor with $277k NSF Grant

[A photograph for media use is available at http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/weiss.jpg.]

A Clarkson University professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences has received a $277,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to write a biography about a controversial human geneticist who worked during Germany’s Nazi era.

History Professor Sheila Faith Weiss will use the two-year grant to complete the research for a biography of Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer (1896-1969), perhaps Germany’s most controversial human geneticist of the twentieth century.weiss

"I’m very flattered that my colleagues in my field thought so highly of my project that they wanted to give me this kind of funding," said Weiss. "I only hope that I can do justice to the significance of this topic."

Von Verschuer was mentor to the infamous Dr. 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 research, which primarily focused on twins. Naturally, 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.

Weiss said her research will also include an epilogue on "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 was not 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 found himself in the moral abyss."

Von Verschuer’s career spanned some 50 years, from 1919 to 1969. These years included four distinct 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. "

Weiss said 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, that could lead us to places we could have hardly have earlier imagined."

If someone like von Verschuer can fall into that trap, she said, anyone can. "We need to see how it was possible for a devoutly religious and world renowned human geneticist to take the steps, to walk the walk, from being a world-acclaimed twin specialist to initiating research with a medical criminal at Auschwitz," she said.

Weiss said that it is natural for scientists to find common cause with the regime they find themselves in so that they can secure research money. 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.

Weiss said she hopes her biography will not only increase people’s understanding of genetic issues, but will 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 twenty-first centuries," she said. "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 said it’s not easy to weigh the deaths of six million people in Nazi concentration camps, whose incarceration and deaths were legitimated by von Verschuer’s research, 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 said.

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, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2010. It was funded by an $86,000 NSF grant, which enabled her to conduct research in Germany and the United States with then-Clarkson student Thomas M. Berez.

Weiss has authored many articles and has received several fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, two Fulbright awards to Germany and a stipend from the German Academic Exchange Service. In 2006, she was the Daimler-Chrysler fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and was offered a position at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

She hopes that when her work is complete, courses based on her research will provide a useful historical and ethical context to both established and new programs in Clarkson’s School of Arts and Sciences.

Weiss received her bachelor of arts degree from Northwestern University and her master of arts and doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University in the history of science. She joined the Clarkson faculty in 1981.

Clarkson University launches leaders into the global economy. One in six alumni already leads as a CEO, VP or equivalent senior executive of a company. Located just outside the Adirondack Park in Potsdam, N.Y., Clarkson is a nationally recognized research university for undergraduates with select graduate programs in signature areas of academic excellence directed toward the world’s pressing issues. Through 50 rigorous programs of study in engineering, business, arts, sciences and health sciences, the entire learning-living community spans boundaries across disciplines, nations and cultures to build powers of observation, challenge the status quo, and connect discovery and engineering innovation with enterprise.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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