When Catholic Fake Science Saved Lives


I think I’ve railed on bad science and woo enough on this blog to make my views on the matter perfectly clear. I think it is exploitative, dangerous, and contributes largely to the dumbing down of our society. However, in an almost “the exception that proves the rule” kind of way (though I never really understood why that phrase makes sense), I have come across an interesting story that I had never heard of before, despite the fact that it took place in my hometown of Rome. In this ironic twist fake science, perpetrated by Catholic doctors, actually saved a good many lives.

In the fall of 1943, German soldiers in Italy began rounding up Italian Jews and deporting them—10,000 people were sent to concentration camps during the nearly two-year Nazi occupation. Most never returned. But in Rome, a group of doctors saved at least 20 Jews from a similar fate, by diagnosing them with Syndrome K, a deadly, disfiguring, and “contagiosissima” disease.

You have probably never heard of this highly infectious and contagious disease. Don’t worry, it has been eradicated, by which I mean that it never actually existed.

The disease did not exist in any medical textbook or physician’s chart. In fact, it didn’t exist at all. It was a codename invented by doctor and anti-fascist activist Adriano Ossicini, to help distinguish between real patients and healthy hideaways. (Political dissidents and a revolutionary underground radio station were also sheltered there from Italy’s Fascist regime.)

The fake illness was vividly imagined: Rooms holding “Syndrome K” sufferers were designated as dangerously infectious—dissuading Nazi inspectors from entering—and Jewish children were instructed to cough, in imitation of tuberculosis, when soldiers passed through the hospital.

OK, so now you’re probably thinking wait, that doesn’t count! They didn’t really believe that there was such a thing as Syndrome K, that’s not fake science! And yes, you have a point there.

Still, they did manage to convince the Nazis of the existence of this deadly disease, contributing to and relying upon their ignorance of medicine and science. Furthermore, these were in fact Catholic doctors, working in a Catholic hospital, risking their lives to save these people not in order to convert them, or because of a Vatican mandate, but relying on their own sense of human decency. I shit on Catholicism a lot for what it has done around the world, but I will certainly acknowledge good Catholic people doing brave and heroic things when they do.

While the overall tally indicates that the world would be better off without both fake science and Catholicism, I still can’t help bringing this story up as the exception to the rule. It was a stroke of brilliance, and it really did work. While it is impossible to say exactly how many people were saved by a Syndrome K diagnosis, it is also true that 9,000 of the 10,000 Roman Jews managed to evade arrest, and the doctors at Fatebenefratelli definitely played their part in that.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … “the exception that proves the rule” …

    – meaning, the anomaly that tests the rule.

    Which I don’t think really applies in this case. I thought, when I started to read, that this would involve something more like Paracelsus’s sympathetic magic routine in which medicine was applied to the weapon or tool that caused a cut, rather than the wound. Since 16th-century medicines in themselves were ineffective or toxic, and prepared in extremely unhygienic ways, this was fairly successful in that the patient received much less exposure to potential infection.

    And yay for the doctors! In my amateur studies of Catholic resistance to fascism, it seems that, the lower on the church hierarchy the actor, the braver and more effective the actions.

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