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John W. Thompson

John W. Thompson: Psychiatrist in the Shadow of the Holocaust

Paul J. Weindling
Volume: 17
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 456
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  • Book Info
    John W. Thompson
    Book Description:

    ‘John W. Thompson: Psychiatrist in Shadow of the Holocaust’ is the biography of a doctor whose revulsion at Nazi human experiments prompted him to seek a humane basis for physician-patient relations. As a military scientific intelligence officer in 1945, Thompson was the first to name "medical war crimes" as a special category for prosecution. His investigations laid the groundwork for the Nuremberg medical trials and for the novel idea of "informed consent." Yet, Thompson has remained a little-known figure, despite his many scientific, literary, and religious connections. This book traces Thompson's life from his birth in Mexico, through his studies at Stanford, Edinburgh, and Harvard, and his service in the Canadian Air Force. It reconstructs his therapeutic work with Unesco in Germany and his time as a Civil Rights activist in New York, where he developed his concept of holistic medicine. Thompson was close to authors like Auden and Spender and inspirational religious figures like Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche. He drew on ideas of Freud, Jung, and Buber. The philosophical and religious dimensions of Thompson's response to Holocaust victims' suffering are key to this study, which cites accounts of psychiatrists, students and patients who knew Thompson personally, war crimes prosecution records, and unpublished personal papers. Paul Weindling is Wellcome Trust Research Professor at the Centre for Health, Medicine and Society: Past and Present, Oxford Brookes University, UK.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-762-9
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Part One: Into the Dark

    • Chapter One “Ecce Homo”
      (pp. 3-10)

      The writer of this letter—Squadron Leader J. W. Thompson, Royal Canadian Air Force Number C21106—saw that the end of Nazism did not mean the end of human suffering. Medicine had to be placed on a humane basis or similar atrocities would recur. A specialist in aviation medicine, he rethought the foundations of medical research and physician-patient relations. The despairing eyes of victims prompted him to assist the suffering, rather than analyze and classify them in terms of neurophysiology or psychology. His life became a philosophy of care for the distressed.

      Sent into the wasteland of Germany as a...

    • Chapter Two Mexican Childhood
      (pp. 11-16)

      In 1935, Blackwood’s [Edinburgh] Magazine published a story by Thompson about an unsettling medical expedition in Mexico.¹ The story told a haunting tale about children growing up in the tropical Mexican province of Oaxaca: when they were young, they had full vision, but as they grew older, they progressively lost their sight. Acquiring knowledge meant a narrower perspective on life: children have vision, so the old depend on the young. Twenty years later, the author reflected on how children were the world’s largest oppressed group, and yet they had innate wisdom.² The child’s vision was weighed against the blind accumulation...

    • Chapter Three Palo Alto Schooling, Stanford Student
      (pp. 17-23)

      John and his elder brother Philip attended Palo Alto Union High School beginning on September 13, 1920. “Paly High” was modern, progressive, and coeducational. Stanford’s imposing first chancellor, David Starr Jordan, laid the cornerstone for the Spanish colonial-style school buildings in 1918, and his progressive spirit—democratic, pacifist, conservationist, and eugenicist—permeated its ethos. Paly High aimed to inculcate values of citizenship, community, social responsibility, and hygiene.¹ It had energetic, fi rst-class teachers.² Reinhold John Jungermann, who taught biological science, had students evaluate the quality of his courses.³

      The burly, determined Philip was “a natural leader”: he was class president...

    • Chapter Four Transatlantic Physiologist
      (pp. 24-29)

      In Sinclair Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Arrowsmith, the tyro physician vacillates among laboratory research, medical practice in the Wild West, public health and eugenics, and a lucrative private practice. John Thompson, AB, found himself dealing with similar moral dilemmas: Should he help the sick and distressed, teach and research in neurophysiology, or specialize in psychiatry and open the way to a new understanding of mental distress? The novel’s climax dealt presciently with the ethics of clinical research on an experimental and statistical basis. Thompson’s mother read Arrowsmith to Frank and Margaret, wondering which medical path her son would choose.¹...

    • Chapter Five Edinburgh Physician
      (pp. 30-42)

      When Thompson returned to Edinburgh as a demonstrator in physiology in 1933, he took a circuitous route. He thought of becoming a demonstrator in neurology in Paris and studying for a doctorat ès science. He worked in the laboratories of the pathological anatomist Ludwig Aschoff in Freiburg and the preeminent neurophysiologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal in Madrid. Visiting Berlin, he took an interest in psychoanalysis.

      Finally resuming his studies, Thompson became immersed in demanding clinical training. He clerked and examined patients in Ward 19 (the students’ ward) of the Royal Infirmary. He worked on the wards for over twentyseven months....

    • Chapter Six Excitable Harvard
      (pp. 43-62)

      “I feel that years ago I got off the rails and am finding it rough going on a self-made road.”¹ Thompson returned to the United States in late 1936. He had the option of returning after a year to Edinburgh or London and specializing in neurology or psychiatry, or extending his stay at Harvard and developing his career as a neurophysiologist.

      Everything appeared set for an outstanding medical career at a moment when physiology challenged psychology: “There was a halcyon day when health was considered only in relation to physiology. The public being informed of the right number of calories...

    • Chapter Seven High Altitude and Rapid Descent
      (pp. 63-75)

      “He can read frightened hands,” announced Time magazine in 1939. The scientific miracle worker and dashingly photogenic “Young Physiologist” John West Thompson went to Kansas City to convince the Association of Military and Flight Surgeons that he could measure fear reactions of pilots. He named his new machine a “Haematometharmozograph,” literally a blood hemoglobin graph.¹ The idea was that fear constricts blood vessels. He measured the constriction by the amount of light that could pass through a person’s hand. The device was “a simple two hundred dollar contrivance” made from a photoelectric cell, an electric light bulb, and an oscillograph...

    • Chapter Eight Auden, Anxiety, and the German Mind
      (pp. 76-86)

      In June 1943, F/L Thompson was sent by Air Commodore and Director of Medical Services J. W. Tice on a tour of duty in the United States. F/L Thompson was to report to the RCAF air attaché in Washington, DC, and to Col. Frank H. Wickhorst, head of Naval Aviation Physical Training. On July 1,1943, he was at the target destination, the National Academy of Sciences, to represent the RCAF at the Subcommittee on Decompression Sickness of the American Committee on Aviation Medicine.¹ The mission was a chance to visit friends, and—memorably—Wystan Auden. On Thompson’s return to the...

  7. Part Two: Redemption

    • Chapter Nine Belsen, “My Crucifix”
      (pp. 89-106)

      Allied plans for the occupation of Germany and Austria meant that Squadron Leader (S/L) Thompson was briefed about conditions he was likely to encounter—and about war crimes. Disarmament detachments searched for scientific weapons, while military medical teams wanted to know what research the Germans had performed during the war. In October 1944 the RAF asked the Canadians to provide an air disarmament unit, and Canadian units were transferred en bloc to the British to disarm the Luftwaffe. The RAF 84 Group was nominally British but staffed by Canadians. Its mission was to search for German radar, jet-engine technology, and...

    • Chapter Ten Medical War Crimes Revelations
      (pp. 107-129)

      Allied scientific intelligence searched for hidden stockpiles of deadly German atomic and chemical weapons and biological warfare agents. The Canadian Advisory Targets Committee aimed to secure military, scientific, and technical intelligence and offered Canadian technical specialists to the British.¹ These specialists had to make sense of the sprawling German wartime scientific edifice with its branches in medical and weapons research.

      S/L Thompson transferred to a military intelligence unit on September 2, 1945 as part of a contingent of Canadian scientists on loan to the British. He became chief of the scientific and technical branch of the British scientific intelligence agency...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 130-136)
    • Chapter Eleven Experimental Ethics
      (pp. 137-158)

      By the summer of 1946, Thompson had persuaded the British, the Americans, and the French to recognize “medical war crimes” as a special category for prosecution. The accumulating evidence on medical criminality prompted chief prosecutor Telford Taylor to instigate the medical trial. On August 15, 1947, when the judges delivered their verdict, they promulgated a set of guidelines on human experiments requiring the “voluntary consent” of human research subjects. What was John Thompson’s contribution to the momentous code?

      Thompson had conceived of an ethical evaluation and statement at an early stage in his campaign to draw attention to medical war...

    • Chapter Twelve Therapist for the German Patient
      (pp. 159-174)

      Thompson hoped that a scientific tribunal could analyze not only ethics but also how the mind-set of war criminals was embedded in national psychology—and thereby throw light on the root causes of Nazi ideology.He envisaged

      a team staffed by psychologists, psychomotrists and psychiatrists to examine and submit a report on the principal individuals among the accused at the Nuremberg trials, as well as on certain other colleagues of theirs who are not available for direct examination.¹

      Thompson believed that Nuremberg was a unique opportunity for psychiatrists to evaluate government leaders and so contribute to historical and political thought. He...

  8. Part Three: Aftermath

    • Chapter Thirteen UNESCO: At the Conscience of the World
      (pp. 177-202)

      Thompson withdrew from Germany as a military officer, only to reenter it as a cultural missionary; the RCAF puzzled over his tangled record of appointments, reappointments, and acting ranks. His efforts to keep his uniform and rank for a few more months were declined, and he was finally demobilized on July 17, 1947. Even so, he worked for A. C. Somerhough’s War Crimes Unit until September 12, 1947.¹ His discharge address was the Spenders’ haven at 15 Loudoun Road in St. John’s Wood, London. Thompson confided to them how acutely deranged and demoralized he felt amid the stress and strife...

    • Chapter Fourteen The Eau Vive Affair
      (pp. 203-241)

      The ideal of a caring community found its realization in Eau Vive. Thompson felt it as

      the most significant action, in my opinion, which is being done in Europe or for all I know the world. One day it will be realized and God grant it may not be too late when the realization comes.¹

      He plunged into this “laboratory of love” heart and soul, sustaining the community and caring for the distressed. Here the anxious individual found therapy and an antidote for a sick century. Ill and thirsting souls found sweetness and light. Eau Vive dispensed meditative spiritual balm....

    • Chapter Fifteen Sebastian
      (pp. 242-255)

      “Berlin Boys’ Arrest”: On December 18, 1946, the Daily Telegraph ran a story on the arrest of five boys (out of a gang of nineteen) for stealing cigarettes and sweets.¹ Postwar Berlin attracted street gangs who lived off petty crime, the sale of sexual favors, and black market goods.² There were thirteen million orphans in postwar Europe. At the time of the currency reform in 1948 an estimated forty thousand homeless juvenile delinquents without papers lived in the British Zone alone.³ “Save Europe Now” was the slogan for an effort to cope with “the masses of unorganised and endangered youth,”...

    • Chapter Sixteen Matthias
      (pp. 256-264)

      Matthias lived in a small chapel on a hill at Eau Vive, marking one of the stations of the cross. He was studious, sensitive, acutely intelligent—and incorrigibly morose. He took his doubts, uncertainties, and anguish to John, on whom he became increasingly dependent. His introverted, reflective nature contrasted to the extrovertly roguish Sebastian. Natasha Spender remembers Matthias at Eau Vive as a “stretcher case,” entirely quiet and withdrawn.¹

      Matthias Georg Leber was born in Lübeck on April 21, 1931. He was baptized with his sister Katharina (two years older) as a Roman Catholic in 1933, when their father was...

    • Chapter Seventeen Child Guide
      (pp. 265-281)

      When Thompson arrived in Oxford, he introduced an aquarium at the Child Guidance Clinic. Thompson meant this microcosmic marine world to fascinate children and calm their anxieties. The educational psychologist was John Fish.

      The tank evoked deeper currents. It was a memento of Eau Vive as living water, reminding Thompson of the active Christian life and symbolizing his peripatetic path from marine biology to becoming “a fisher of men.” Jung had recently had a vision of an eerie laboratory, interpreting Christ as a fish, and God the father as a wounded Fisher King: “The fish laboratory is a synonym for...

    • Chapter Eighteen New York: “St. John the Psychiatrist”
      (pp. 282-300)

      Thompson wondered how could he be a doctor in a clinic when the whole world was mad!¹ Milton Rosenbaum sensed Thompson was unhappy in Oxford. “I hired Thompson as a poet” was the disarming explanation of Rosenbaum, the founding professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “I saw him as a very special person. He had a spiritual side—a philosopher, writer, poet.”² Thompson was appointed assistant professor on February 1, 1958.

      We find Thompson at an institution whose rationale was to remedy the injustice of discrimination. The Albert Einstein College of...

    • Chapter Nineteen Hallucinations
      (pp. 301-320)

      Eau Vive haunted Thompson as a therapeutic paradise lost, a place where humanity’s fractured, broken state could be restored to wholeness. In the camp of the Living Water and the living, spoken word, words were tested “by listening to the voice of their previous perversion.”¹ Thompson told the Einstein psychiatrist Stephen Bauer how one antisocial member at Eau Vive imagined he heard a message “from Dr. Thompson” ordering them to disband. Thompson returned to find the place deserted. The auditory hallucination concluded his stylized parable of survival, community, and delusion.²

      Thompson got to hear of the new radical psychiatry of...

    • Chapter Twenty “Dying We Live”
      (pp. 321-332)

      Thompson looked forward to death as “immersion in the sea, absorbed by the infinity of being.”¹ His wartime sense of existing amid death was indelible. In April 1948, he had asked his sister, Margaret, to think kindly of him “if we do not meet again.” He confided to Sebastian in May 1954 that he hoped to avoid a lingering death: “There is nothing partial either in the crucifixion or the resurrection. . . . May we live or die but not partially be alive and partially be dead.”²

      Thompson convinced Père Thomas that the fear of death remained half conscious...

  9. Appendix: John Thompson’s Writings
    (pp. 333-338)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 339-418)
  11. Sources
    (pp. 419-428)
  12. Index
    (pp. 429-440)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 441-441)