BERLIN — Accusations of unethical auto safety tests Wednesday engulfed the respected Heidelberg University, one of Germany's oldest institutions of higher learning.
Senior officials at the university's Institute for Forensic Medicine found themselves scrambling to defend a series of auto crash tests, carried out over a period of nearly two decades, in which human cadavers were used instead of the customary plastic manikins.
Details of the tests were published prominently in two German newspapers Tuesday, including the mass-circulation Bild Zeitung, which stressed that some of the cadavers used were those of children ranging from 2-13 years of age.
The revelations, confirmed in large part by university authorities, triggered a groundswell of public indignation and condemnation from several official organizations.
Sensing the strong public reaction, Bild Zeitung splashed a follow-up report in its Wednesday editions across the front page, along with a photograph of the project's chief scientist under the headline, "Professor Horror."
University officials admitted that more than 200 human cadavers had been used in crash tests conducted by the institute since 1972 and that, in at least six instances, the bodies were those of children.
The last test involving a child's body was conducted in 1989, according to the institute's director, Rainer Mattern.
Mattern defended the tests, stating that they were needed to confirm the accuracy of manikin testing and that the results had helped to make driving safer for the living.
He said that in all cases involving children, permission of the parents was sought and received before the tests were conducted.
The government of Baden-Wuerttemberg state, where Heidelberg is located, Wednesday demanded a written explanation from the university detailing the scientific justification for such tests and providing proof that permission to use the bodies was obtained in advance from relatives.
The institute reportedly conducted the tests under contract from several auto producers. According to Bild Zeitung, these included a group of about 40 German auto companies and component manufacturers calling themselves Automobil-Technik, which included many of the industry's major names such as Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and the General Motors subsidiary Opel AG.
Non-German producers were reportedly involved in financing other tests.
George Parker, associate administrator for research and development at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, says at least three universities in the United States have used cadavers "to test injuries and human tolerances in auto crashes." They are the University of Virginia, Wayne State University in Detroit and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
"You can only know from cadaver testing what injuries are suffered and what the human tolerances are. You have to find the thresholds where this occurs," Parker said.
"There are no ethical problems, because the cadavers used all have been donated to medical science, and I know the University of Virginia calls families and tells them what use is being made of a donated cadaver. But the bodies of children never are used, as they are in Germany."
Parker said the National Academy of Sciences studied the issue around 1980 and endorsed the use of cadavers.
The All German Automobile Club (ADAC), normally a strong ally of Germany's large auto industry, condemned the Heidelberg tests.
"In an age when experiments on animals are being put into question, such tests must be carried out on dummies and not on children's cadavers," the ADAC said in a written statement.
Roman Catholic church officials in Germany and the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano also condemned the decision to use cadavers, with the paper's theologian Gino Concetti describing the procedure as a "repugnance to the conscience."
Times staff writer Robert L. Jackson, in Washington, contributed to this report.