Asperger first identified it as "autistic psychopathy", but his work was only recognized and the syndrome named after him following his death in 1980, although its designation has always been contentious.
Documents uncovered by an Austrian medical historian suggest that Prof Asperger ingratiated himself with the Nazi regime to the extent of participating in its murderous euthanasia programme. The strongest claim supporting this view, the paper states, alleges that the Gestapo twice tried to arrest Asperger because he did not report patients with certain "deficiencies".
In fact, Czech found evidence that Asperger referred children to the notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic, a euthanasia facility where 772 children are said to have been killed.
The findings challenge the "narrative" that pediatrician Hans Asperger was an active opponent of the Nazis and their policies, according to Herwig Czech, a historian of medicine at the Medical University of Vienna.
A new study sheds light on the links between Hans Asperger and the Nazi regime.
"He joined several organizations affiliated with the NSDAP (although not the Nazi party itself), publicly legitimised race hygiene policies including forced sterilisations and, on several occasions, actively cooperated with the child "euthanasia" program". "While the euthanasia killings at Spiegelgrund (as elsewhere) were officially a secret, and parents were routinely deceived about the true nature of the institution and the fate awaiting their children, rumors nevertheless abounded, and Asperger was in an exceptional position to know the truth", Czech writes. But it also opened opportunities for Dr. Asperger, he added.
In the case of one three-year-old child, Herta Schreiber, Asperger wrote "the child must be an unbearable burden to the mother, who has to care for five healthy children".
The clinic was part of a Nazi program created to serve the goal of engineering a genetically "pure" society through "racial hygiene" and the elimination of lives deemed a "burden" and "not worthy of life", Czech said. "The degree of Asperger's involvement in the targeting of Vienna's most vulnerable children has remained a vexing question in autism research for a long time", he said.
The study's findings have prompted debate and consternation among people with autism and their advocates, especially those who identify with the term "Asperger", Carol Povey, director of the London-based Center for Autism of the National Autistic Society, said in an email.
What worries me most from this sad story is that, while I would not claim for a second that anyone today would endorse the evil actions of Hans Asperger, we still see some of Asperger's attitudes - that some autistic people are useful, and autistic people are burdensome - in so much discourse about autism today. "We will be listening closely to the response to this news so we can continue to make sure the language we use to describe autism reflects the preferences of autistic people and their families".
"Obviously no one with a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome should feel in any way tainted by this very troubling history".