Nazi-tainted Pernkopf’s Atlas: A case for acknowledgement, not removal – STAT

I was slouched in my lab seat during a lecture on osteopathic principles and practices, doing my best to pay attention but admittedly thinking more about lunch than the blood flow of the head. Suddenly, as I was observing a beautiful illustration of the particular venous drainage of the brain, a name at the bottom associated with the screen stunned me.

Image adapted from Pernkopf’s Atlas 3 rd Edition.

I knew through my undergraduate work in medical humanities that some of typically the drawings within this atlas were based in part on the bodies of people executed by the Nazis.


We spent the next hour unable to pay interest. After the lecture, I approached the professor. “I noticed you cited Pernkopf. Are you familiar with his history? ” I actually asked.

He responded that he vaguely understood there was some controversy with Pernkopf, but the clinical importance of this images inclined him to use often the illustrations anyway. I thanked him for the lecture plus walked away, unsure regarding what in order to do, now struck with a moral dilemma I never anticipated.


Eduard Pernkopf (1888-1955) was the brilliant teacher of anatomy in Vienna during the Third Reich in addition to active member of your National Socialist Party, also known as the Nazi party. Pernkopf’s most popular and influential work, his four-volume atlas of human anatomy , “Topographische Anatomie des Menschen” (1937-1963) has been created with such painstaking detail that it is still used in medical education as well as guidance for surgeons . Early editions from the text include swastikas and other Nazi insignias. After an extensive investigation by the University involving Vienna in 1997, the exact university concluded the following excerpt should be included in front of each copy of the atlas:

“Currently, it cannot be excluded that certain preparations used for the illustrations in this atlas were obtained from (political) victims from the National Socialist regime. Furthermore, it is unclear whether cadavers were at that time supplied to the institute of Anatomy at the University of Vienna not only coming from the Vienna district court but also from concentration camps. Pending the results connected with the investigation, it is therefore within the individual user’s ethical responsibility to decide whether and even in which way he wishes to use this book. ”

This vague recommendation has left the medical and ethics community along with a messy moral debate. Some say the atlas should end up being removed from all libraries citing its exploitation of people, possible justification with regard to future atrocities, and inability to separate the particular product from its maker. Others insist typically the atlas ought to remain inside use, justifying that good — such as better clinical outcomes — can be derived from its evil, the victims whose bodies are represented in this atlas are best honored by continued use, and its aesthetic value.

Works like Pernkopf’s Atlas are unique because often the tangential product can be directly traced to be able to its dark origin, though it is not distinctive by nature with valuable medical knowledge being gained simply by unethical means. For instance, your knowledge for that development for the hepatitis vaccine was developed by physicians knowingly slipping infected feces into the milkshakes of children with intellectual disabilities at Willowbrook State School inside Staten Island in the exact 1950s together with 1960s. November of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the end from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in which Black men together with syphilis had been knowingly untreated in an attempt to better understand the pathogenesis of the disease. While Tuskegee and Willowbrook may be memorable to many readers, Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid points out similar experiments occurred long before Tuskegee and additionally continued long after. Further, for each artist or scientist known to have had an ethically troubled past, there are usually almost certainly a lot more whose skeletons have stayed quietly in the closet.

Calls regarding removing this particular atlas not to mention similar works skirt the particular stark reality that so much from the foundation about western medical science will be bathed throughout blood, and by receiving medical treatment in this specific society we are benefiting from past atrocities. Medical knowledge derived via unethical origins cannot be simply cut out because to do so would call for a resection of the structure of western medicine itself. Doing away with products of unethical of biomedical science and research instead directly harms patients by reducing useful clinical knowledge and it removes the medical community’s ability to acknowledge, discuss, plus reconcile its history.

The back-and-forth arguments about whether morally questionable science in addition to art should be removed also circles around a crucial variable: the context under which they are used. It is wrong to utilize Pernkopf’s Atlas as an educational tool if no one in the room knows the framework of the creation. (In the lecture by which I saw the Pernkopf reference, I was likely the particular only person in typically the room of nearly 100 current and even future healthcare doctors who knew the story of the atlas. ) Changing the particular framework under which this information is disseminated, however , changes typically the ethics of its use.

Too often, debates like the one surrounding Pernkopf’s Atlas have centered around the false dichotomy of remove or not get rid of. Much less attention has focused on the more nuanced — and important — question: If this particular product is to be used, how can it be used ethically?

The absence of understanding surrounding Pernkopf’s Atlas within the medical community is a salient representation from the lack of historical context given during medical training. The particular atlas is a product associated with immense scientific and clinical value, but it should furthermore be applied in order to instruct health care students together with doctors about the influence regarding external political pressure on medicine. Typically the atlas must be used in a way that recognizes their scientific value but also teaches doctors and students the particular relevance involving medical ethics, history, plus most importantly acknowledges typically the profound travesty the victims of the period underwent.

My professor knew Pernkopf’s Atlas has been controversial, but was not aware of the particular extent of the controversy. After the few conversations and emails, and once he realized I was not in typically the business associated with stirring up trouble for the sake of it, this individual sent out an email to be able to the entire class outlining some regarding the history of the Pernkopf Atlas in addition to acknowledging the tragic source of its origins.

There will never be unanimous agreement about regardless of whether Pernkopf’s Atlas ought to be utilized. Instead, more attention needs to focus on how this and similar works will be used. Pernkopf’s Atlas was created by a new man who was both an anatomical genius and even an avowed Nazi, using victims of one of the particular darkest periods of human history to create elegant together with indispensable physiological illustrations. The historical circumstance which allowed such some sort of phenomenon to occur as well as a thorough acknowledgement of typically the atrocities should always accompany the recognition of the atlas’s benefit in order to medicine and those that gave their health, their own dignity, plus their lives to further medical advancements.

Chad Childers will be a third-year medical student at Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine within Indianapolis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *