NL 2009/04

To supplement our focus on eminent Viennese gynaecologist Hermann Knaus, this newsletter introduces one of Knaus' opponents who became known because of his Nazi involvement.

Dispassionate or depraved?
German Scientist Hermann Stieve used the bodies of executed women to gain insights into ovulation

When Knaus and Ogino discovered the regular sequence of safe and unsafe days in the female cycle in 1929/1930, the sceptical scientific community kept the controversy alive. One such skeptic was Hermann Stieve (1886 – 1952), "an eminent anatomist, who had revolutionised the basis of gynaecology by his exemplary clinical-anatomical research". However, another judgement said he was "a leading anatomist of the Nazi era and a major exploiter of cadavers produced by Nazi justice."

Stieve researched the structure of male and female sexual organs, mainly the biological and anatomical character of the female cycle. He was the first to understand the basic morphology and physiology of the human gonads.

He needed fresh organs from healthy young females and men, which are normally a rare resource for a dissecting room. He asked surgeons to supply him with tissue obtained from their surgeries. Traditionally, victims from executions ended up in the anatomical department, but there were few executions before the Nazi regime.

Starting in 1933, the use of the death penalty grew – for example because of political resistance. Stieve used these cadavers to reassess Hermann Knaus' and Kyusaku Ogino's findings. Young women's execution dates were even scheduled close to their expected menstruation to meet Stieve's requirements. According to Knaus, this part of the cycle was understood as "safe" since there is no mature egg to be found. But when Stieve performed autopsies and saw eggs that had recently burst, he felt confirmed in his opinion that Knaus and Ogino were wrong.

"Knaus' observation is not accurate… "

The origin of these extra ovulations was fear of death arising from detention, imprisonment, trial and death sentences. In 1942, Stieve correctly described "bleedings from fear" ('Schreckblutungen') outside the normal menstrual cycle as caused by psychological reasons. Even so, he used his observations as proof against Knaus' and Ogino's teaching that the female cycle was a static process.

In 1944, Stieve proposed the hypothesis of "paracyclic ovulations", which could occur on any given day: "A fact of anatomy explains the clinical observation that healthy fertile women do not have any period that is physiologically infertile." Today, the concept of paracyclic ovulations is not kept anymore. Instead we understand that the high failure rate of Knaus' method can be explained by some instability of the ovulation within the cycle.

Stieve was not a member of the NSDAP and was not seen as a sadist or criminal. However, he subordinated his ethics to his burning scientific ambitions and did not try to prevent any executions. Otherwise, his research followed proper scientific methodology, and his explanations contained no speculation or bias. He did not even conceal the origin of his observations' objects, writing for example: "Shortly after their death I could explore the cadavers from 421 persons who had died from direct force…."

Stieve examined not just executed females but males as well. For example, he published his observations on the sperm production's cessation due to fear, linking it to the date of execution.

Since Stieve's academic interest was not influenced by racist ideology, he quickly passed denazification and remained as head of the first Institute for Anatomy at Humboldt University until his death. For many years, his excellent drawings of the egg's maturation in the ovaries were featured in German textbooks. His studies on the diminishing of menstruation and libido due to environmental influences became a basis of the psychosomatic understanding of illness: "I could... demonstrate that the gonads’ activity in woman and man is not only ruled through hormones but extensively through the nervous system as well."

Come and learn about Hermann Knaus' story in Vienna's Museum of Contraception and Abortion. Wednesday through Sunday 14 -18 h. Mariahilfer Guertel 37, A-1150 Wien (Austria)

Werner Götz (1986), quoted from "Die Charite im Dritten Reich", page 105
Ernst Klee (2003), quoted from "Die Charite im Dritten Reich", page 105
Hermann Stieve: Zentralblatt für Gynäkologie 1944 Jul, Nr. 7: p. 257-272