Physicians are usually held to the highest ethical and moral standards known to man. The Hippocratic Oath which doctors are sworn to uphold is not to be taken lightly, and the principles they espouse of medical confidentiality and non-maleficence are considered to be some of the essential pillars of modern society.
However, what happens when The Hippocratic Oath is not just broken, but deliberately, flagrantly tossed aside and abused? History is full of so-called doctors touting totally inhumane and horrifying instances of abuse; utilizing their sacrosanct position to disguise their most wicked practices. In a sense, what makes a psychotic doctor far worse than, say, a mad scientist is the exploitation of their patients’ vulnerability, and the disregard of the emotional intimacy that occurs between them. Instead of saving lives, these doctors knowingly spread torture and mayhem.
Here are some of the worst instances of widespread abuse and medical malpractice throughout history.
Walter Jackson Freeman II
Lobotomies were arguably something of a medical fashion during the 1940s and 50s, and Walter Jackson Freeman II is largely to thank for that. The American neurologist became notorious for the controversial surgery, which entails cutting or shaving off a particular section of the brain, in the hopes of treating primarily psychiatric issues.
The now discredited procedure was disproportionately performed on women who were considered “difficult,” or mentally unstable. Even though it was technically recommended for specific psychiatric cases, such as schizophrenia, it was overly prescribed to women who simply did not conform to the social ideal of the time. Homosexuals were also subjected to this horrifying surgery, which led to either death, or patients becoming either comatose-like vegetables for the rest of their lives.
While Walter was perhaps not driven by some sick desire to destroy peoples’ brains, his mania to perfect the technique – he went so far as to perform at least 20 lobotomies a day, sometimes in front of an audience – led to the destruction of thousands of lives. He was finally banned from work as a doctor, but only in his twilight years.
While Europe was at the mercy of one of the most unforgiving wars in history – WWII – France especially was forced to wrestle with many, many evils. One of the most shocking and disturbing figures to have emerged during the war was that of physician and serial killer Marcel Petiot, whose heinous crimes shocked his fellow countrymen to the core.
Having been diagnosed at different intervals throughout his youth as mentally disturbed, Marcel somehow continued to live his life unchecked, serving in WWI, and moving on to become a physician. According to many accounts, his first full-blown mental breakdown occurred on the battlefield in 1918, wherein he was wounded and gassed by enemy forces. Nonetheless, he was quickly released with a disability pension, and went on to attend accelerated schooling for war veterans, which helped him to complete medical school.
The troubled Marcel went on to open his own clinic after interning at a mental institution, and he quickly attracted notoriety for leading an underground network for illegal abortions and drugs. He somehow managed to avoid any legal action from the authorities for quite a long time. However, one day in early March, 1944, Marcel’s neighbors complained to local police of a terrible stench. Having seen large wafts of smoke emanating from his home, authorities feared a chimney fire. When they arrived to Marcel’s, they found dismembered body parts strewn throughout the fire, and even more –human remains in the basement.
Given the country’s wider turmoil due to the war, Marcel managed to escape arrest, and the search for him led to a media frenzy in which he was deemed “The Serial Killer of Nazi Occupied France.” Marcel hid for awhile with one of his patients, and when that no longer became feasible, he found sanctuary disguised as a captain of counterespionage forces. He was finally discovered and tried in 1946, sentenced to death by beheading.
Police had found the body parts of at least 60 patients in Marcel’s home, although the true number of those he murdered and dismembered is widely believed to be far greater.
Eugenics Inspired Doctors in the United States
This entry doesn’t name a specific practitioner, as horrifying race-based, or class-based medical practices were unfortunately systemic throughout the United States, especially during the 1930s till the 1970s.
Eugenics in essence is a set of beliefs that aimed to improve the genetic “quality” of the human population, primarily through different forms of birth control and sterilization. Much of the social philosophy is now discredited, but it is hard to underestimate the caché this once reputable discipline had in the wider culture. The darker side of its practices would even influence the Nazis during WWII, particularly with its focus on sterilization.
The latter practice was so widespread in the United States, that many famous cases have emerged over the past decades, indicating the extent to which physicians disregarded the basic ethical tenets of their practice. Tragic and bone-chilling stories of mentally ill patients being forced to sign away their bodies in the service of medical science have appeared, whereby they were forced to undergo various forms of sterilization. The procedure was especially widespread in the South, wherein the medical systems had an invested interest in keeping the birthrate amongst the African American population rather low….even if it came at the expense of a woman’s, and broader community’s autonomy.
The medical establishment actively encouraged these arcane and profoundly inhumane practices to flourish for decades, but not before it influenced other murderous regimes to take notice, as can be seen in the next entry.
Nazi-run concentration camps remain infamous for their stark inhumanity and cruelty, and there were a few horrifying physicians operating without impunity. One of these figures was German doctor Carl Clauberg, who carried out many disturbing experiments on the unfortunate inmates in Aushwitz.
Carl’s prime interest was in exploring sterilization methods, and he received top approval from Heinrich Himmler himself to conduct these experiments on women. Most of his victims were either Jewish or Gypsy women, which he used for his shockingly cruel tests.
In an attempt to find cheap methods of sterilization, he would inject acid into their uterus, without anesthesia. Nowadays, so much of the medical maleficence carried out by the Nazis seem almost exaggerated in their blatant evil. But sadly, these tests were arguably the natural extension of popular race-based sciences of the day, such as Eugenics. Many of the women Clauberg experimented on died, and approximately 700 managed to survive the brutal procedure, which inevitably affected their health and psyche forever.
Carl was captured by Soviet troops in 1945, but was released in 1955. Upon his return to West Germany, Carl managed to reopen a medical practice. But he blew his cover with insistent boasting regarding his so-called achievements in sterilization at Auschwitz, and was arrested. He died of a heart attack before being put on trial for his crimes.
H. H. Holmes
Yet another serial killer disguised as a doctor, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes is often remembered as one of the earliest mass murderers in American history.
One day, bullied as a child for his fear of doctors, Henry was forced by his fellow classmates to stare at a skeleton for hours. The macabre form of teasing actually managed to instill a kind of eerie comfort in Henry with death, and thus began his fascination with medicine and the intricacies of the human body.
He went on to graduate from Michigan Medical School, where it is said that he stole and maimed cadavers. This sick pastime formed the basis for one of his first run-ins with the law, as he attempted to collect insurance by claiming that the bodies died in accidents.
Perhaps the most terrifying chapter in Henry’s career as a serial killer came with the construction of his “Murder Hotel,” which took place during the 1893 Chicago World Fair. The hotel served primarily as a torture chamber wherein clientele would frequently disappear, never to be found again. Henry mutilated and murdered people – many of whom were women – and stripped their bodies of flesh to make skeleton models.
While the true number of his victims remains a mystery – due in large part to the tall tales Henry so often spun – some sources report that he killed perhaps 200 people during his lifetime. He was eventually caught in 1897, sentenced to hanging. One of his last requests was to be buried in concrete, as he feared his grave would be robbed and his body cut-up by others. Despite the bizarre nature of his entreaty, it was granted.
Given the amount of power they possess, it is no wonder that doctors have become a sort of mini-trope in the vaults of horror fiction. Sitting in the dentist’s chair, completely at the mercy of the individual about to drill into your skull, is perhaps one of the most nightmarish images out there, and with good reason. Whether the system allows them more breathing room than it should, or the psychotics roaming among us know that donning scrubs is a good disguise for their murderous tendencies, people have every right to dread visiting the doctor.