Professor on leave in wake of Nazi gas dosage exam question

A chemistry professor includes an exam question about the lethal dose of poisonous gas used in the gas chambers during the Holocaust.

Sara Rubenstein,

Holocaust survivor
Holocaust survivor
Flash 90

A chemistry professor at Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in Vermont, is on a leave of absence following an uproar over his exam question asking students to compute the lethal dosage of poisonous gas used in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust.

The professor, Jeff Byers, who has taught at the college since 1986, asked the following question on an exam in early March: "Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) is a poisonous gas, which Nazi Germany used to horrific ends in the gas chambers during The Holocaust. The lethal dose for humans is approximately 300 mg of HCN gas per kilogram of air when inhaled...Calculate the g of HCN that would give a lethal dose in the above room (5 points)."

A few students reported the question to the college administration but the story didn't spread far until the school's satirical newspaper, The Local Noodle, poked fun at it and the professor, jokingly calling him "a 'Real Nazi' about grading" in early April.

In turn, The Local Noodle received criticism for its satirical response of a serious matter referencing genocide.

The college's Community Bias Response Team (CBRT) criticized the exam and The Local Noodle's response in a campus-wide email on April 7. "The use of this exam question failed to provide any critical engagement with the historical contexts and atrocities of the Holocaust," the CBRT email statement said. "It asked students to engage in problem-solving that mirrors calculations used to implement systematic genocide. Our students should never have been put in this position."

The Middlebury Campus website quoted the response of a Jewish student to the exam question. "I was pretty rattled when I saw the question, as the Holocaust is not something to make light of, especially since I am Jewish and the problem involved us calculating how much poisonous gas you would need to kill people in a room," the student said.

Following the uproar, Middlebury conducted an inquiry of the incident. Middlebury President Laurie Patton published a statement last week, saying, "This inexplicable failure of judgment trivializes one of the most horrific events in world history, violates core institutional values, and simply has no place on our campus. We expect our faculty to teach and lead with thoughtfulness, good judgment, and maturity. To say we have fallen short in this instance is an understatement."

"Middlebury has, and always will, condemn any actions that are anti-Semitic or racist in intent or effect, just as we will any other acts of bias or discrimination," Patton added.

The inquiry revealed that the professor had included another offensive exam question in the past year referring to the Ku Klux Klan.

The professor, Jeff Byers, later apologized on the school's website, saying that two of his exams in the past year included questions "that were clearly offensive, hurtful, and injurious to our students."“




top