Thursday, May 27, 2010

What's in a name?: Dr. Wegener's Murky Past

This months issue of JASN has a review of ANCA-associated vasculitis. The authors discuss the controversy regarding the naming of Wegener’s Disease and whether it’s time for a new name to be chosen for this condition.

Dr. Friedrich Wegener was a German pathologist who is best known for first describing the pathological condition that bears his name. He was in receipt of numerous honors throughout his life including the title ‘Master Physician’ which he received from the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP) in 1989, the year before his death. He was known as an excellent physician and educator having taught for many years in the university of Lubeck.

However, it seems that he had a murky past of which few were aware. After finishing medical school in 1932, he joined the Sturm Abteilung (SA), also known as the brownshirts, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. The following year he joined the Nazi party itself when Hitler came to power. He rose through the SA and achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by 1938. During the 1930s his mentor was Dr Martin Staemmler, a prominent supporter of the Nazi party who had written extensively on racial hygiene. When the war started, he was sent to Lodz in occupied Poland where he worked as a pathologist until 1944. His office was just a few blocks from the Lodz ghetto where more than 40,000 Jewish inmates died during the war with most of the remainder deported to concentration camps. Although there is no evidence that he was involved in ‘selections’ he is known to have performed autopsies on inmates of the ghetto and could not have been unaware of what was going on. After 1944, he served as a field surgeon in the German army until the end of the war. His name was placed on a list of war criminals by the Polish government but he was never prosecuted and underwent de-Nazification in 1947 after which he was allowed to return to practicing medicine.

Although many professionals in Germany joined the Nazi party in the 1930s for the purpose of enhancing their careers, it is instructive that Dr Wegener joined the SA prior to Hitler’s rise to power suggesting that his sympathies lay with the Nazis. That said, there is no specific evidence that he took part in any war crimes.

In 2007, after this paper was published, the ACCP decided to posthumously rescind the award of master clinician awarded in 1989. Since then there have been calls by physicians and patient advocacy groups to change the name of the Wegener’s Granulomatosis.

The original paper published in the Lancet in 2006 can be found here while another paper detailing the search that the authors conducted in order to discover this hidden history is here.

Posted by Gearoid McMahon MD


Anonymous said...

the procedure of interpreting what people think to know what god they worship was called in the past :Inquisition ...

Anonymous said...

The image printed here is nog dr. Friedrich Wegener but prof. dr. Martin Staemmler.

Gearoid McMahon said...

Thank you very much for pointing this out - I changed the picture as suggested.