A recently-published medical journal article claims that Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician after whom Asperger’s syndrome is named, was involved in the Nazi euthanasia program to sterilize or kill retarded, emotionally-disturbed and sick children in the 1930's and 40s (Molecular Autism, April 19, 2018). If this is true, he certainly should not continue to have the honor of having the medical syndrome named after him.
One of the greatest tributes a physician can receive is to have a medical condition named after him, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Down’s syndrome, Hodgkin’s disease, Dupuytren’s contracture and so forth. When I was resident, I was fortunate to have shared patients with Dr. Mike Leventhal and remember how all the residents in training treated him with the greatest reverence because he was the Leventhal of Stein-Leventhal syndrome, also called polycystic ovary syndrome. I also saw Fuller Albright, who discovered Albright's syndrome, a condition characterized by abnormal scar-like tissue in bones. Having a syndrome named after you is such a great honor that it should not be granted to any person who lies when he takes the Hippocratic oath that says “First, do no harm”.
Asperger's Syndrome usually describes a person who has difficulty socializing with other people, even though his ability to learn and reason may be normal, superior, or even at the genius level. Such children have difficulty making friends, may try to dominate every conversation, are often clumsy and uncoordinated, display little empathy for other people and have difficulty communicating with their parents. These symptoms usually continue into adulthood. In spite of their handicaps, they may be so smart that they can be incredibly successful as adults.
Hans Asperger was born in Austria-Hungary on February 18, 1906 and as a child, he had many of the symptoms that he described in the syndrome that was named after him. He was lonely and had difficulty making friends, but he read poetry and was a very good student. He was graduated from the University of Vienna Medical School in 1931. At age 37 (1943), he wrote a paper based on his experience with 400 children who had difficulty functioning in school and society, even though some of them were very smart (Arch Psychiatr Nervenkr, 1944;117:76–136). However, his paper failed to give credit to Russian neurologist, Grunya Sukhareva, who described most of the same signs and symptoms seventeen years earlier (1926). Since he did not write his paper in English, his work did not become widely known until 1981, one year after his death, when British researcher Lorna Wing named the syndrome after him in her published paper, "Asperger’s syndrome: a clinical account" (Psychol Med, Feb, 1981;11(1):115-29).
He Belonged to Nazi Organizations
Hans Asperger benefited professionally from the Nazi anti-Jewish hate and hysteria that started in 1930s Germany. In 1935, he was appointed chief of the Heilpädagogik ward at the Vienna University Children's Clinic, ahead of several considerably more qualified Jewish colleagues. In 1944 during World War II, the Nazi hierarchy promoted him to become chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Vienna and he continued to flourish in Germany's medical circles after the end of World War II. In 1946, after the war, he became director of the children’s clinic, in 1957, he served as professor at the Universitats–Kinderklinik , Innsbruck, and in 1977, he became professor emeritus. Although he was never a member of the Nazi Party, Asperger apparently advanced his medical career through his Nazi activities. Dr. Herwig Czech, author of the article in Molecular Autism (April 19, 2018), spent more than eight years researching available data and wrote, "Asperger refused to acknowledge the reality of anti-Jewish persecution by the Nazi regime; this indifference is visible both during and after the war." Czech documented that:
• Asperger was an active participant in the National Socialist position on race and sterilization laws (1940 Nazi documents).
• He declared his allegiance to Nazi medicine in several public lectures and signed his medical workups with “Heil Hitler.”
• He served in a program in which almost 800 children were killed or died from diseases or starvation between 1940 and 1945.
• He was on a committee that decided which children should perish because they were "uneducable."
• He referred two girls to the Am Spiegelgrund facility where children were killed by lethal injection or gassing.
The Same Story for Reiter's Syndrome
Another doctor, Julius Reiter, described a type of arthritis that is accompanied by burning on urination or pain in the eyes, and named it after himself, "Reiter's Syndrome." However, he was not the first person to describe this syndrome; it had been reported by an English surgeon, Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie, 100 years earlier. French physicians Feissinger and Leroy also reported the syndrome in 1916. Reiter offered no treatment and no cure, and incorrectly thought that the syndrome was caused by a spirochete similar to the one that causes syphilis, thus delaying a possible cure for those afflicted. We now know that this syndrome is a type of reactive arthritis that may be caused by bacteria such as mycoplasma or chlamydia, and may be cured by taking doxycycline or other antibiotics.
Julius Reiter was a Nazi doctor who was convicted of war crimes for medical experiments that killed thousands of people at the Buchenwald concentration camp (Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, 2000;6(1):49-54). He gave the orders for and supervised many medical atrocities (Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatology. Feb, 2003;32(4):231–236). In one series of experiments, he injected typhus into more than 250 Jewish prisoners and then they were killed. He also ordered sterilization of non-Aryans. The Spondylitis Society, which represents patients who have arthritis, voted to reject the name Reiter’s Syndrome and instead to use the general term "reactive arthritis" to describe the condition (Arthritis Rheum, 2007;56 (2): 693-694). Now the rest of the medical profession will call their cases of arthritis that are accompanied by burning on urination or pain in the eyes "reactive arthritis" and stop paying homage to Julius Reiter, who lied when he took the Hippocratic Oath.
Famous People with Traits of Asperger's Syndrome
According to an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (January 2003, 96(1): 36–39), many famous and productive people may have had the traits described as Asperger's syndrome, including: Hans Christian Andersen (fairy tale author), Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland), Henry Cavendish (scientist), Charles Darwin (naturalist), Emily Dickinson (poet), Albert Einstein (Nobel prize-winning mathematician), Bobby Fischer (world chess champion), Alfred Kinsey (biologist), Michelangelo (sculptor, painter, architect), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (composer), Sir Isaac Newton (mathematician, astronomer), Nikola Tesla (inventor), Irène Joliot-Curie (1935 Nobel Prize winner and daughter of Marie Curie)
Should the Name "Asperger's Syndrome" be Changed?
We don't know whether Hans Asperger was a fervent Nazi or whether he just went along with the principles of the Nazi regime to further his medical career. Unlike Julius Reiter, he was never put on trial for war crimes. Some historians feel he was a victim, but the recent and extensively referenced article in a prestigious medical journal presents strong evidence that he supported the Nazi program of euthanasia for sick or mentally deficient children. If that is so, he should not be honored with the name "Asperger's syndrome" being given to patients with high-functioning autism.
February 18, 1906 – October 21, 1980