Wilhelm (Otto) Stepp was born in Nuremberg on October 20, 1882. A Protestant Christian, he was the son of Karl Stepp, a general practitioner, railroad doctor and royal court councillor, and his wife Emma Reuter. Stepp married Margarete Krüger, born on March 22, 1891, also a Protestant, on September 27, 1913. The marriage produced five children: Hans-Karl (September 2, 1914), Marlen (June 22, 1916), Hanna-Rose (November 23, 1919), Wilhelm-Christian (October 23, 1927) and Albrecht-Joachim (July 17, 1929).
After graduating from the Altes Melanchthon Gymnasium in Nuremberg (1900), Stepp first worked in the workshops of the Nuremberg Maschinenbau AG before deciding to study medicine in Munich in 1901. After having studied for a semester in Erlangen and Kiel respectively, he passed the preliminary examination in Munich in 1904, where he was licensed in 1906 and received his doctorate in 1907. He worked as a physician at the Medical Clinic in Giessen, initially as a volunteer assistant and assistant (1907-1917). He interrupted his work there for scientific training at the Chemical-Physiological Institute of the University of Strasbourg in 1908-09. He habilitated in Giessen in 1911 and worked at the Institute of Physiology of the University of London in vitamin research under Ernest Henry Starling for six months. He had received a travel grant from the Bavarian state government. In London, he was in contact with the later Nobel Prize winner Frederick Gowland Hopkins. He was appoionted senior physician and associate professor in Giessen in 1917, and scheduled associate professor in 1922. He presided over the Giessen Medical Polyclinic, when he assumed the position of full professor and director of the Medical Clinic in Jena on October 1, 1924. He had received a Rockefeller Fellowship, which enabled him to spend six months in Baltimore/USA.
Stepp succeeded Oskar Minkowski as director of the Medical Clinic in Breslau on October 1, 1926. He succeeded Ernst von Romberg as director of the Clinic for Internal Medicine and the Medical Clinic in Munich on April 1, 1934. He lived at Vilshofener Straße 10 in Munich 27 in 1939.
Stepp was awarded the "Hessisches Sanitäts-Kreuz" (Hessian Military Medical Cross) and the "Rote-Kreuz-Medaille IV. Klasse" (Red Cross Medal IV. Class). He had been a member of the Leopoldina since 1922 as well as a corresponding member of the Budapest Medical Society and the Association of Physicians in Vienna. He listed internal medicine, pathology of metabolism and nutrition, vitamins, and gastric, intestinal, and cardiac diseases as his special fields of research.
He had been deemed unfit during medical examination, and was thus never a member of the regular military. He performed military service in the "Landsturm mit Waffe," and during World War I he was deployed at the military hospital at the Gießen Medical Clinic. Stepp belonged to the Alldeutscher Verband, the DNVP and initially to the NSDAP Victims' Ring. Previously an aspirant, he became an NSDAP member on May 1, 1937 (no. 4821565). The Gauleitung München-Oberbayern also registered his membership in the NS-Lehrerbund ("since 1933"), NSD-Dozentenbund, NSD-Ärztebund, NSV, RLB and Reichskolonialbund in 1939, without him holding a party office. His wife, as well as one of his daughters, were members of the NS-Frauenschaft, another daughter of the BDM, and one of his sons of the Jungvolk.
He also attracted attention with popular works, such as the "ABC der Gesundheit" (ABC of Health) and the paper "Bier wie der Arzt es sieht" (Beer as the doctor sees it) after 1945. Honored with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, he died on April 20, 1964, and was buried in the Waldfriedhof cemetery in Munich. On the occasion of his 80th birthday one and a half years earlier, he had been honored with a bust by the Munich artist Bernhard Bleeker, donated by friends, colleagues and students. It was erected at his former place of work in Munich.1
Germ Cell Damage due to Vitamin Deficiency
Wilhelm Stepp was regarded as "one of our most eminent experts on vitamin questions" during the Nazi era and researched how "germ cell damage due to vitamin deficiency [...] could have an effect in successive generations."2 He skillfully linked the hereditary research expected by National Socialism with metabolic research. Stepp intensified this focus even more after he was appointed director of the I Medical Clinic in Munich in 1934.3 Together with Max Borst, director of the Pathological Institute and chairman of the "Reichsausschuss für Krebsbekämpfung", he initially conducted experimental "metabolic studies in malignant tumors, especially in cancer."4 The "Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft" (DFG) (German Research Foundation) supported the project, initially with loans of 4000 marks in 1935, and later also with grants for personnel and materials.5 It was found that there was a vitamin C deficit in the excretions of cancer patients. They also developed an improved method for detecting ascorbic acid in tissues.6
The first results of the Munich research were presented at the Wiesbaden Congress by Stepp's assistant Hermann Schröder in 1935.7 DGIM member Fritz Voit turned his attention to pectin in apples, Helmuth Wendt, DGIM member from 1939, to carotene-vitamin A metabolism, and Ernst Altenburger, also a DGIM member, to the "Beziehungen der Askorbinsäure zum Glykogenhaushalt der Leber" (Relations of Ascorbic Acid to the Glycogen Balance of the Liver).8 This vitamin research was not only approved through the support received from the DFG. For example, the veterinary physiologist Carl Arthur Scheunert stated in an expert report that "the promotion of vitamin work is absolutely necessary."9 Helmuth Wendt – senior physician and soon to be associate professor and one of Stepp's closest collaborators – listed a total of nine "papers in the context of nutritional research" from Munich's I Medical Clinic in a summary report to the DFG in 1937: eight in the context of vitamin A, and one, Altenburger's paper, regarding vitamin C.10
Stepp's research also won acclaim from luminaries in the field. The former Munich professor Friedrich von Müller used a review of Stepp's book "Die Vitamine und ihre klinische Anwendung" (Vitamins and their Clinical Application), published in 1936 with Joachim Kühnau and Hermann Schroeder, for clear words of dissociation from an unscientifically practiced medicine.11 Stepp's guide was a "thorough description of the entire vitamin theory, followed up to the latest times" and was "warmly welcomed by all scientifically thinking physicians." It provided "comforting proof of the ways in which the true new medical science is progressing in quiet work."12 Friedrich von Müller – whom the regime had presented with the "Adlerschild des Deutschen Reiches" (Eagle's Shield of the German Reich) in September 1933 on the occasion of his retirement – referred to a book that refrained from any kowtowing to those in power, even in its preface.13
"Large-Scale Nutritional Trials"
Berlin decided to involve Stepp in "large-scale nutritional trials," which began in 1936. However, the situation prompted Stepp to write a harsh letter of complaint to the DFG the very next year, in which he pointed out "with perfect frankness the difficulties, inconveniences, and much aggravation."14 Stepp disliked the role of "supplicant" vis-à-vis the DFG, when one "has to keep struggling for the remittance of the funds necessary to pay the necessary auxiliary staff etc."15 At times, auxiliary staff could not be paid, and invoices could not be settled. Wendt had "temporarily advanced money" from private funds. Such "untenable conditions" and further "trouble galore" let Stepp doubt whether he should follow the DFG's request for renewed cooperation from his institute, and he offered to come to Berlin "for a discussion of all the issues, if the Research Foundation is in a position to [...] reimburse the expenses of the trip."16 Stepp's frank words did not lead to any lasting disgruntlement, for a few months later, he sent a letter to DGF President Rudolf Mentzel "thanking him most sincerely for the kind provision of RM 4,000.- for nutritional experiments with organically and inorganically fertilized vegetables [...]."17 He received another 1,200 Reichsmark.18
The experiment, which was instigated by the Reich Health Office, aimed to determine "whether any harm was to be expected from a diet of artificially fertilized vegetables." To this end, the vitamin content of blood and urine "during and after a diet of artificially fertilized vegetables" was determined in a group of residents of two Munich apprentice homes. A control group was fed with "organically fertilized vegetables". The experiment could be carried out for a duration of two to three years, the duration of the apprenticeship period, while the subjects of an experiment conducted in a labor service camp in 1936, had only been available for half a year.19
Wilhelm Stepp and Hermann Schroeder sided with those vitamin researchers in 1942 who regarded synthetic and natural vitamins as equivalent.20 However, since near-natural purity concepts traditionally found supporters in the ranks of the National Socialists, it seemed necessary for the party to rebuke Stepp's critics. Franz Wirz, the Reichgesundheitsführer's nutrition commissioner, took on this task in the Deutsches Ärzteblatt.21 The debate was of political importance in that the administration of artificial vitamins was intended to strengthen "public health", especially the health of front-line soldiers. The company Merck produced tablets containing ascorbic acid; vitamin K administration lowered the risk of hemorrhage, not only in newborns.22
Vitamins and Cancer
Other projects were now also funded by the DFG with larger lump sums. Max Borst, who cooperated with Stepp and had taken over the "administrative work," was granted 10,400 RM each for "Untersuchungen über negative und positive Beeinflussung der Entwicklung maligner Tumoren im Tierexperiment, insbesondere Beziehungen zwischen Vitaminen und Krebs" (Investigations on Negative and Positive Influence on the Development of Malignant Tumors in Animal Experiments, Especially Relationships Between Vitamins and Cancer).23 The DGIM member Felix Steigerwaldt, was the one reporting to the DFG for a while.24 The project was one of ten listed in the DFG's "Frühfassung des Tumorenforschungsprogramms" (Early Version of the Tumor Research Program) on July 24, 1936.25
According to lists received, Stepp received a total of RM 46,800 in grants designated as "credit" and RM 60,300 in "grants in kind" in Munich during the Nazi period.26 Both major areas – vitamin research (including cancer) and nutritional experiments (effect of artificial fertilizers) – were carried out till the end of the war. They were recognized as "important to the war and the state," as Stepp emphasized in 1940.27 As late as February 1945, Stepp sent an invoice that had been stamped as "Unerledigt z.d.A. 18.6.45 (pending, ad acta 18.6.45) for the "Beziehungen zwischen Vitaminen und Krebs" (The Relationships Between Vitamins and Cancer) for the amount of 5,100 RM to Berlin.28 A grant issued in April 1945 with a request for a report by October 1, 1945, never left the Reich Research Council.29
The embedding of his scientific work in the DFG's tumor research program launched in 1936, was extremely clever. It was "a liberally handled model of research funding not previously applied to this extent in Germany."30 At the same time, despite individual points of contact with Nazi racial hygiene, it was considered distant from politics and more likely to be classified as basic research.31 After the Nazi era, Stepp's vitamin research lost its problematic political character. In a popular science book, he praised beer for its ingredients as a valuable "dietary factor."32
Hospital Modernization in Munich
In addition to his research, Stepp's concern since 1934 had been to have his Munich institution, the Krankenhaus links der Isar, modernized by the city of Munich: "When one hears[,] that the Schwabing hospital is so wonderfully furnished and modernly equipped, one feels hurt as a clinician, when the rooms of the Krankenhaus links der Isar, which are used for teaching and which are, after all, in a certain sense teaching facilities, are not as they should be."33 Stepp was initially unable to prevail on this issue, partly also because at an authoritative meeting, Friedrich von Müller only partially supported Stepp's concerns.34
Later, approval of Stepp's work was not without limits. In May 1942, Max de Crinis had the Ministry of Science ask five leading university professors, including Assmann, Eppinger, and von Bergmann, whether, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of his birth, "Professor Stepp should be awarded the Goethe Medal for Art and Science on account of his scientific achievements when applying a strict standard." 35 The votes led de Crinis to conclude that one could wait for "the 65th or 70th year of life."36
Propagandist of National Socialism
Stepp not only skillfully aligned his scientific interests with those of the National Socialist state. He also quite openly advocated National Socialism. He delivered flaming speeches in Breslau in support of the policies of the "Führer" in 1933. As a "clinical teacher who [...] had to introduce internal medicine" at the beginning of the summer semester, and "whose task it was not to politicize here in the lecture hall," he considered it his "duty to speak of the rebirth of our nation" all the same.
He did so in approving memory of the previous DGIM congress and its president, Alfred Schittenhelm: "We as physicians, whose task is the health service to our people, feel the obligation to cooperate with all our forces in the edifice, which we can already see arising before us in its great outlines. You know that the entire German medical profession has internalized this wish and you may have learned from the daily newspapers that the chairman, Mr. Schittenhelm - Kiel - of this year's meeting of the German Congress of Internal Medicine, also stated this thought for our panel in his opening speech. We sent a congratulatory telegram to our Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, on April 20, expressing our wishes and veneration."
Stepp paid homage to Hitler: "Today, on the day we begin with our term, we want to commemorate the man to whom the German people owes all this, our People's Chancellor Adolf Hitler! [...] If we profess with passionate love to the beautiful doctor's profession, we have in mind the ideal image of the old doctor, the man who puts the welfare of his patients above his own, the sincere, honest man who gives his outmost to fulfill his duty, the man for who the meaning of life is more than just material values. Can we imagine a man who possesses these qualities to a greater degree than the Führer of the new Germany? The tremendous power of mind, putting it in Kant's terms, which dwells in this man, the selflessness of his volition, the sincerity of his character, the strength of his will are what has driven millions of people to him, and it is a sign of jubilance that the hearts of the people fly to such a man."37
A few weeks later, Stepp had pictures of Hindenburg and Hitler installed in the lecture hall of the Department of Internal Medicine: "Both my staff and I wished to donate these pictures to the clinic."38 On this occasion, Stepp initiated a ceremonial act, at which he again and increasingly praised the dictator. The relevant passages take up three typewritten pages in the speech manuscript: "In Adolf Hitler we find united the qualities of the soul, which have been regarded as the cardinal virtues of man since Plato: bravery, wisdom, prudence and justice [...]. The victory of his movement is a victory of his personality or, let us put it more correctly, a victory of the formidable moral force that has found its embodiment in him. Thus, he has become a popular educator who stirs the masses, who brings to light the good that is in every man [...]. We must be grateful to providence for having given us a Führer, whose strength is rooted in a deep piety. And how they have fought this man for years! [...] They called him a drummer and denied him the ability to be a true statesman. If we love and admire Adolf Hitler and want to follow him to the last, we should consider how we can best prove our love and admiration for him. [...] If Hitler, in the late hour of the night, after having done his state business, still feels the obligation to educate himself forward, let this be an impulse for us to work with untiring industry, each in his stead."39
Stepp – who had made sure to use every opportunity before students to propagate Hitler and his "movement" in Breslau – portrayed himself as a determined opponent of Hitler after the end of the Nazi era. He did far more in public than was expected of a scientist on the part of the NSDAP. Stepp also deployed his speeches for internal purposes, when there was political opposition to his appointment to Munich in 1933/34. He sent both speeches to the Munich dean to prove his loyalty to party principles.40
At the same time, DGIM member Erich Frank, chief physician for internal medicine at Wroclaw's Wenzel-Hancke Hospital located close by in Breslau, was driven into flight by Nazi anti-Semites. Frank, who had published the section on "die hämorrhagischen Diathesen" in Schittenhelm's "Handbuch der Krankheiten des Blutes" in 1925, found the highest recognition in Turkish exile and was honored with a state funeral after his death in 1956.41
However, Stepp apparently did not make an opportunistic turn, but was in fact highly satisfied with Hitler's rule. This is supported by the fact that Stepp was known to have discriminated against Jewish colleagues even prior to 1933. It had already been noticed in the 1920s that Stepp refused to support Minkowski's student Rudolf Stern.42 Stern's fellow assistant Alfred Lublin, a DGIM member and later also persecuted as a Jew, moved to Greifswald in 1929.43 The DGIM member Martin Nothmann, who had joined the phalanx of prominent diabetes researchers with his lecture on "Organ-Insulin" at the Wiesbaden Congress by 1925, was also not supported by Stepp.44 Nothmann, co-discoverer of synthalin under Minkowski, succeeded Pascal Deuel – who died unexpectedly in 1932 – as chief physician at the new Israelitische Krankenhaus in Leipzig. He was still able to work as a patient care physician from 1938 during the Nazi era, before fleeing and, like twelve other physicians expelled by the Nazis – including Siegfried Thannhauser – found employment at Tufts University (Boston).45
When Stepp was called to his "Bavarian homeland" in 1934, he gratefully professed that it was "the duty of every German who pledges allegiance to the National Socialist state to devote himself with the full force of his idealism to work for the community of the people in his assigned place."46 Unlike Alfred Schittenhelm, he felt at home in Munich, which was so "familiar and dear" to him.47 This was helped by the fact that he successfully applied to bring to Munich a female employee who was important to him, the technical assistant and laboratory technician Elisabeth Rehnelt – not without pointing out that Rehnelt had been a member of the NSDAP since July 15, 1932.48 His senior physician in Breslau, Kurt Voit, and four other staff members, including Alfred Böger, were also able to accompany him.49 On the other hand, at Stepp's request, Wilhelm Parade, who later was appointed full professor in Innsbruck, initially stayed behind in Breslau. He did not want to bring "'any informer and fanatical National Socialist' with him into his new sphere of activity," Stepp is reported to have said, according to a postwar report by Alfred Böger.50
Stepp certainly did come into conflict with a senior physician from his predecessor Romberg's era, who revoked his agreed departure. "The Reichsärzteführer had advised him to keep his position, 'since it would overthrow him [Stepp]'", Stepp quoted the senior physician in the denazification proceedings in 1946. He, Stepp, had been able to prevail in the dispute, but henceforth, the Gau-Dozentenführer as well as the Reichsdozentenführer" had been his "declared enemies".51
However, these conflicts did not prevent Stepp from continuing to advocate National Socialism and becoming a National Socialist himself. The former German nationalist was accepted by the NSDAP in May 1937. He did not hold office, but did enough to please the local group leader. The latter stated on January 5, 1939: "There are no doubts about the political reliability of the aforementioned. He has already repeatedly written essays on fundamental scientific questions for the journal 'Leib und Leben'. Due to his special scientific occupation with nutritional questions, he has very often been assigned special tasks by the Reich Health Office since the assumption of power. As donations to the WHV, Professor Dr. Stepp's household gives decent amounts (Eintopf RM 8,-- Pfundsammlung RM 5,--). Apart from the VB [Völkischer Beobachter], other national newspapers are read."52
The Death of the "Reichsärzteführer" Prior to Stepp's Wiesbaden Congress
The 51st DGIM Congress took place on 27 March, 1929, in the shadow of the death of Reichsärzteführer Gerhard Wagner, who had died two days earlier on March 25, 1939. Stepp had attendees stand in commemoration of Wagner during the opening ceremony and affirmed that the DGIM "deeply commiserates the death of this upright man."53 Wagner, a DGIM committee member, was largely responsible for leading the way to Nazi medical crimes.
Stepp used his public appearance for massive propaganda for Hitler and National Socialism, just as he had done in Breslau in 1933. He explicitly welcomed the expansionist course of the German Reich, hailing his "colleagues in the Sudetenland", "in old German Prague, in Bohemia and in Moravia, as well as in the Memelland". To Hitler, Stepp stated, among other things: "With the feeling of greatest gratitude, our eyes are directed today to the man who led our fatherland up from the deepest humiliation to unprecedented greatness. We salute Adolf Hitler, for whom our hearts beat more joyfully than ever!"54
The congress cooperated with the "Gesellschaft Deutscher Neurologen und Psychiater" (Society of German Neurologists and Psychiatrists) with its representatives Heinrich Pette and Ernst Rüdin. Together, Stepp, Pette, and Rüdin signed the telegram to the "Führer", which had become a tradition by now, and renewed "the pledge of unwavering loyalty and wholehearted devotion in the service of public health" on behalf of their societies.55
Stepp's textbook contributions refrained from political commentary.56 When he published the seventh edition of his book "Die Vitamine und ihre klinische Anwendung" with Joachim Kühnau and Hermann Schroeder in 1952, there was a remark on the "obstructed research of the years 1940 to 1945" that was exclusively associated with the "war event[s]". 57 Admittedly, there is also talk of a "decade of the most severe shaking of the whole world," which "spared no area of life".58 The authors recognized "material and spiritual hardships as well as the fear of a new and even worse catastrophe of mankind" in 1952.59