Neurolathyrism in vapniarka: medical heroism in a concentration Camp

Can J Neurol Sci. 2011 Nov;38(6):839-44. doi: 10.1017/s0317167100012403.


Stories abound about the medical abuses that have come to define medicine and the "pseudo"-neurosciences in the Third Reich. Well known are the Nazi program of euthanasia and the neuroscientific publications that arose from it. Nevertheless, during this widespread perversion of medical practice and science, true medical heroics persisted, even in the concentration camps. In December 1942, inmates of Camp Vapniarka began experiencing painful lower extremity muscle cramps, spastic paraparesis, and urinary incontinence. In order to reduce the cost of feeding the 1200, mostly Jewish, inmates of Camp Vapniarka and surreptitiously hasten their deaths, the Nazi-affiliated Romanian officers of the camp had begun feeding them a diet high in Lathyrus sativus. L. sativus is the neurotoxin implicated in neurolathyrism, a degenerative disease of the upper motor neurons. Dr. Arthur Kessler, one of the camp's prisoners, eventually identified the source of the epidemic. Armed with this knowledge, the inmates collectively organized to halt its spread.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Concentration Camps / history*
  • Heroin / history*
  • Heroin / therapeutic use
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • National Socialism / history*
  • Neurosciences / history*
  • Pain / drug therapy
  • Pain / history


  • Heroin