Regulating Human Subjects Research: Scope, Limitations, and post-WW II Negotiations on the Research Guidelines

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Volker Roelcke(University of Giessen)

"Regulating Human Subjects Research: Scope, Limitations, and post-WW II Negotiations on the Research Guidelines/ Reichsrichtlinien of 1931"

(Introduced by: Aleksandra Loewenaum Oxford Brookes University)



This paper was presented to the international symposium:

"Reassessing Nazi Human Experiments and Coerced Research, 1933-1945: New Findings, Interpretations and Problems"

4 - 7 July 2013, Wadham College, Oxford


Convened by Paul Weindling (Oxford Brookes University), Marius Turda (Oxford Brookes University), and Volker Roelcke (University of Giessen).

Kindly funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and the University of Giessen


Abstract: At the Nuremberg Medical Trial and in its immediate context, there were contradicting references to the German ethical guidelines on human subject research (Reichsrichtlinien) dating back to the Weimar Republic (1931): On the one hand, there was the assumption e.g. by British scientists that German researchers in general had kept to these rules and thus had applied the principle of informed consent in their activities; on the other hand, the guidelines were seen as an ethical “benchmark” which had notoriously been disregarded by many medical researchers up to 1945.


The presentation will attempt a first evaluation of the actual relevance which the Reichsrichtlinien had during the Nazi period; it will then look at the references to these rules in the context of the post-war trials; and finally it will focus on discussions in the late 1940s amongst German scientists which – as a corollary of the discussions at the trials – aimed at weakening these rather strict rules of human subject research.


Bio: The focus of Volker Roelcke’s work is on the  political dimension in the production of biomedical knowledge in the late 19th and 20th century, and its increasing authority in the emergence of what today is called „knowledge society“. Looking at empirical cases and dynamics in the fields of psychiatry, human genetics, eugenics, and microbiology, he also addresses issues of explicit and implicit moral values and anthropological assumptions in the formation and practices of systems of knowledge production.

Having studied medicine as well as social anthropology, ancient history, and philosophy, he received his Master-degree in Philosophy (thesis on ancient Greek medicine) at Cambridge University, and his M.D. degree at Heidelberg University (experimental study in tumor immunology). He completed his habilitation in the history of medicine in 1997 at Bonn University. Since 2003 he is full professor and director at the Institute for the History of Medicine, Giessen University, Germany. In 2011 he was elected as a member of the German Acadamy of Sciences - Leopoldina.



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