Wartime Mad Scientists: Mengele & Ishii

During times of war, the public’s attention is drawn to the actions of soldiers and heroes rather than the experiments that a few medical professionals are conducting. In this article, you will learn of two mad scientists who took advantage of their wartime leniency.  

Joseph Mengele

Joseph Mengele [1911-1979] was a German SS officer, who worked as a physician at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps during the Holocaust. During the Holocaust, Mengele supervised selecting prisoners who had newly arrived for being put down to death or who could help as a forced laborer. He also had the permission to choose camp inmates for his human experiments.

He earned the nickname of “The Angel of Death” because of the horrific experiments that he enjoyed conducting. However, he had his favorite test subjects and they were twins. It is estimated that he ran experiments on at least 3,000 sets of twins. Only 26 sets were lucky enough to have survived.

Mengele once sewed a pair of twins together to create a conjoined set. They later developed gangrene. He injected chemicals into the eyes of children to see if they would change color. He amputated limbs. To make matters even more painful , the majority of his experiments and surgeries were achieved without the use of anesthesia.

With the power he had during the Holocaust, many question whether he conducted his experiments in the name of science or if he was enjoying the power he had a little too much.
Mengele was dubbed one of the most hunted at-large war criminals in the world. He continued to live for 34 years afterwards , dying in Bertioga, Brazil in 1979. His body was buried under the name of Wolfgang Gerhard. Not once did he ever express any regret for the crimes he committed. Mengele may have contributed information to the study of genetics and the “nature vs. nurture” debates in biology, but modern researchers do not speak much of the connection.

Shiro Ishii

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Shiro Ishii [1892 to 1959] was a microbiologist and the lieutenant general of Unit 731 , a biological warfare unit belonging to the Imperial Japanese Army. His participation in the unit would later earn him the nickname of “Father of Biological Warfare.” During the course of his experiments, he performed about 3,000 “dissections” of prisoners while they were alive and without any anesthesia. His surgeries were horrific and he also deliberately infected thousands of captives with deadly diseases.

During his early years, Ishii lived in the former Shibayama Village of Sanbu District in Chiba Prefecture. He went to school at Kyoto Imperial University to study medicine. His first experiments in biological warfare took place in 1932, where he headed a secret project for the Japanese military. Unit 731 was established in 1936. A large compound located outside of the city of Harbin, China was constructed that consisted of more than 150 buildings that stretched across 6 square kilometers.

Some of his experiments that took place under his command in Unit 731 included the vivisection of pregnant women who were impregnated by the doctors and freezing body parts of prisoners that were then thawed to study the resulting untreated gangrene. He tested grenades and flame throwers on living subjects. He studied the effects of diseases injected into subjects.

Unfortunately, Ishii would never face a court of law for the crimes he committed. He was never prosecuted and died at his home in Japan as a wealthy man. He was 67 years old and had enjoyed immunity that the American Occupation Authorities granted him.