Science Careers Blog

December 3, 2012

What's In a (Prize) Name?

Prestigious science prizes play an important role in advancing and validating the careers of productive researchers. The names of those awards, however, often have complex relationships to the science that they honor. Alfred Nobel, for example, whose eponymous awards stand at the pinnacle of international renown, was a highly successful industrialist who trained as a chemical engineer and made a major fortune developing nitroglycerine as a commercially viable explosive. Albert Lasker, memorialized by the highly coveted prizes whose winners are widely regarded as the farm team for the Nobels, was a prodigiously successful advertising man who played a major role in popularizing cigarette smoking, especially among women. His wife Mary did crucial advocacy work for the development of the National Institutes of Health.

Recently, two lesser known but still prestigious awards, each named for an individual with a complicated relationship to science, have been in the news. One connection is deeply human and the other is, ethically, highly controversial. On 29 November, Rockefeller University in New York presented the former, the annual Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, to Joan Steitz of Yale University for her work advancing knowledge of RNA. The $50,000 award is given each year to a distinguished female biomedical researcher. It was established by 2000 Physiology or Medicine Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard, who used his portion of the Nobel monetary prize to honor the memory of the mother who died giving birth to him. He wants to provide the recognition afforded by a prestigious prize in order to reduce bias against women in science.

The most controversial name attached to a significant award, however, appears to be that of Hubertus Sturghold (1898-1986), the German M.D./Ph.D. widely considered the "father of space medicine." For half a century the Space Medicine Association (SMA) has presented a prize in his honor to a leading space medicine researcher. But, as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports (subscription required), the "prestigious" award has become highly "controversial." Historic research has raised troubling questions about the circumstances surrounding space medicine work in Strughold's native Germany. He was one of the German rocket scientists brought to the U.S. after World War II despite sometimes dubious connections to the Nazi war effort. These scientists, most famously Werner von Braun, played vital roles in the victorious American space race against the Soviet Union.

Historians have found documents suggesting that Strughold at least knew about excruciating and fatal experiments on inmates of the Dachau concentration camp to determine the limits of human tolerance for cold temperatures, and also about dangerous but apparently not fatal experiments on child patients at a psychiatric hospital to study the effects of low atmospheric pressure. The extent of involvement or assent by Strughold, a major figure in German academic medicine who did research important to advancing wartime aviation, is not clear. He denied knowledge of the Dachau scientific atrocities and does not appear to have belonged to the Nazi Party. The experiments on the children, however, took place in the institute Strughold headed, WSJ reports. "He was sitting in the Luftwaffe ministry, he was the director of the Medical Research Institute--he knew exactly what was going on at Dachau," says Wolfgang Eckhardt of Heidelberg University, the author of a book on Nazi medical research, according to the WSJ .

Some members of SMA argue that the society should stop giving a prize honoring a person with Strughold's history. After a 2006 investigation by the society, "our response was, he was not a Nazi, he was not a war criminal, and no, we're not going to take his name off the award," says former SMA president Mark Campbell, as quoted by WJS. "We would not have been where we are in space medicine without Strughold," Campbell stated, also characterizing the experiments on the children, which he does "not defend," as "fairly benign."

One suggested possible solution for Campbell could be to strip Strughold's name from the prize but also to state that there is not evidence of him committing war crimes or becoming a Nazi, WSJ notes. Other members, however, object to this proposal.

So how will Strughold's past affect the prize's future? Stay tuned.

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