Should Medicine Discontinue Using Terminology Associated with Nazi Doctors?Historians in the News
tags: Nazis, psychiatry, medical history
Edith Sheffer’s young son always disliked labels such as Asperger’s syndrome. But in 2016, a psychiatrist told him that he should be proud: His condition was named after Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian scientist in the 1930s who used his position to help save children like him. By devising a diagnosis that emphasized the children’s intellectual abilities, the psychiatrist said, Dr. Asperger tried to spare them from the Nazi campaign to “euthanize” youths with cognitive disabilities.
Dr. Sheffer, sitting next to her 12-year-old son, knew this wasn’t entirely true. Now a historian of 20th-century Europe at the University of California, Berkeley, she had spent years researching Dr. Asperger for her 2018 book, “Asperger’s Children.” Before he became known as a benevolent savior — “a psychiatric Oskar Schindler,” as Dr. Sheffer put it — Dr. Asperger marched in line with the Nazis’ medical framework.
His diagnosis, which he later called autistic psychopathy, was part of the larger Nazi medical effort to divide lives into two categories: worthy or unworthy of living. And, Dr. Sheffer learned with horror, he had personally condemned dozens of children to the killing centers. “I don’t want my son to be named after someone who sent children like him to their deaths,” she told Vox in 2018.
By the time her book was published, Asperger’s syndrome was no longer listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 2013 it was folded into autism spectrum disorder, in part because there was not solid evidence that it warranted its own diagnosis. But shortened versions of the term are still used widely in the autism community, many of whom refer to themselves with terms, such as “Aspie,” derived from the name Asperger’s.
Dr. Sheffer has since been gratified to see that other medical organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization, which put out the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, or ICD-11, have largely phased it out. “I think the message has reached the medical community,” she said.
Asperger’s is (or was) a medical eponym, part of a hallowed tradition of naming body parts, diseases, disorders and tools after great medical figures. Its demise illustrates the risk inherent in idolizing anyone from another era, and adds support to a growing movement to end this tradition altogether. But some scholars contend that even “canceled” eponyms have a place, as stark reminders of the ethical breaches medicine should never repeat.