Pioneering physician Asperger sent children to their deaths, study claims

Story highlights

  • A study says Hans Asperger actively cooperated with the Nazi regime's euthanasia program
  • The term Asperger's syndrome was coined in 1981 to describe a high-functioning form of autism
  • One expert says the study must be looked at in a historical context

(CNN)Hans Asperger has been recognized for decades for his groundbreaking studies on child psychiatry and pediatrics.

But the physician for whom Asperger's syndrome was named also actively cooperated with the Nazi regime's euthanasia program, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Molecular Autism.
Medical historian and study author Herwig Czech, of the Medical University of Vienna, writes that Asperger was aligned with the Nazi ideology of "racial purity" and routinely referred profoundly disabled children to the infamous Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna.
    A portrait of Hans Asperger, circa 1940, from his personnel file.
    Over five years -- from 1940 to 1945 -- almost 800 children died in the clinic, many of them from deliberate poisoning or starvation, according to the study.
    It's not clear whether Asperger, who is recognized for his pioneering autism research on what he called "autistic psychopaths," was aware that he was sending his patients for euthanasia at Am Spiegelgrund.

    Findings to spark a 'big conversation'

    Based on previously unexamined documents drawn from Austrian archives, the new study seeks to challenge the prevailing academic narrative of the doctor as a principled opponent of National Socialism. Though he never joined the ranks of the Nazi Party, Asperger sought membership in several organizations affiliated with it, the study claims.
    The research is based on Asperger's personnel files, political assessments by Nazi authorities and contemporary medical records from various institutions.
    "The picture that emerges is that of a man who managed to further his career under the Nazi regime, despite his apparent political and ideological distance from it," Czech writes.
    The reassessment of Asperger's role in history is likely to prompt intense discussion among people with autism and their families, according to Carol Povey, director at the National Autistic Society's Centre of Autism in the UK. "We expect these findings to spark a big conversation among the 700,000 autistic people in the UK and their family members, particularly those who identify with the term 'Asperger,' " Povey said.
    "We will be listening closely to the response to this news so we can continue to make sure the language we use to describe autism reflects the preferences of autistic people and their families.
    "Obviously, no one with a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome should feel in any way tainted by this very troubling history."
    The term Asperger's syndrome was coined in London in 1981 by Dr. Lorna Wing to describe a high-functioning form of autism characterized by average or above average intelligence and a difficulty socializing and communicating with others.
    The editors of Molecular Autism, in an editorial accompanying the study, state that at the time, Wing was "unaware of Hans Asperger's close alliance with, and support of, the Nazi program of compulsory sterilization and euthanasia."

    'Permanent placement'

    One particularly upsetting case cited by Czech is that of Herta Schreiber, a 3-year-old patient with signs of disturbed mental and physical development who also had encephalitis.
    In 1941, Asperger recommended Herta's transferal to Spiegelgrund, saying "permanent placement" there was "absolutely necessary" because she must "an unbearable burden to her mother."
    Herta died three months after acceptance in the clinic, one day after her third birthday. A note in the child's Spiegelgrund file indicated that her mother knew what fate awaited her child.
    At least one expert said the report still needs to be seen in context.
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    "Virtually all doctors in Germany at that time were members of the Nazi Party, and there was almost no opposition to the euthanasia programs for the mentally ill and handicapped, except from one or two heads of asylums and a very small number of Catholic bishops," said Dr. Anthony J. Bailey, professor and chairman of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Institute of Mental Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
    "The truth is that forced euthanasia was imposed on a very diverse range of people with mental and neurological problems, and a focus on Asperger seems unwarranted," Bailey said.