Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Guest Blogger Dr. Ronald Chase on Historical Misuses of Psychiatry

Dr. Ronald Chase is the author of  Schizophrenia: A Brother Finds Answers in Biological Science.   Today, he joins us as a guest blogger to talk about his recent trip to Heidelberg and the atrocities committed by the Nazis under the guise of psychiatry and a reminder for all of the things psychiatry should not be.  Dr. Chase is a biologist who taught neurobiology at McGill and now writes about mental illness.  As per the title of his book, the topic can be very personal.  

A Memorial is a Reminder

To research a book I am writing about the 19th century origins of modern psychiatry, I recently traveled to Heidelberg, Germany. I wanted to see the clinic where Emil Kraepelin and other influential psychiatrists had worked. I met up with Dr. Maike Rotzoll, a psychiatrist and historian who had been a psychiatric resident at the same clinic. She kindly agreed to show me around. As we approached the stately old clinic building, she suddenly turned from the beckoning entry and led me to a small enclosure just opposite. There, surrounded by a ring of small trees, stood a monument. “I want you to see this,” said Dr. Rotzoll.

It is a circular structure made of local sandstone and measuring about 10 feet in diameter. On its topside is an inscription which reads (in translation), “In memory of the victims — for us an admonition. We lament these 21 children, patients of the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Heidelberg, killed in the name of criminal medical research in 1944.” All around the sides of the memorial are written the names of the murdered children. 

            Dr. Rotzoll explained that the children were killed by Nazis acting under the infamous Aktion T4 program of eugenics and euthanasia. Carl Schneider, then Director of the Psychiatric Clinic, was an active participant. Some contemporaries described Schneider as empathetic and enthusiastic about psychiatric rehabilitation, but he ordered these children killed to further the cause of what he called “National Therapy”. He collected their brains for histopathological research. Altogether, the Nazi euthanasia programs killed an estimated 200,000 persons with mental or physical handicaps, of whom 70,000 were psychiatric patients and 5,000 children.

            Although I learned a lot about late 19th century psychiatry while in Heidelberg, and I found the city beautiful, the thought of those 21 children weighs heavily on my memory. On the one hand, it is reassuring to know that post-war Germans are driven to express their horror and regret about what was done. On the other hand, it leads me to reflect on the dangers lurking even now for all of us. How was it that an institution that had hosted such distinguished psychiatrists as Franz Nissl, Emil Kraepelin, Alois Alzheimer, Karl Jaspers, and Hans Prinzhorn could have become involved in such terrible acts? Clearly, many medical professionals, among whom Carl Schneider, failed to see ethical implications in the prevailing social-political agenda, or their vision was blunted. It’s something to bear in mind as we read of American doctors assisting in the interrogation of prisoners detained as part of the war against terrorism. Especially worrisome is the recent report written by two psychiatrists detailing cases of complicity in the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo and other centers.

            I thank Maike Rotzoll for her contributions to this post.

Ronald Chase is an emeritus professor of biology at McGill University. His book combines, in alternating chapters, a 50-year memoir of his intellectually gifted older brother and an accessible explanation of the science related to schizophrenia.