World's best anatomy book was designed by a Nazi: Is it ethical to use it?

A world renowned nerve surgeon saved the leg of a patient using Pernkopf's book, but afterward questioned the ethics of consulting it, taking into consideration its grim history.

August 20, 2019 18:04
2 minute read.
Maj. (Dr.) Ted Ferguson performs reconstructive surgery. Used for illustrative purposes

Maj. (Dr.) Ted Ferguson performs reconstructive surgery. Used for illustrative purposes. (photo credit: MASTER SGT. EFRAIN GONZALEZ/US AIR FORCE PHOTO)

The Pernkopf Topographic Anatomy of Man, an anatomy reference book first published in 1937 by a Nazi doctor, continues to be the most common anatomy book used by surgeons. But its gruesome history has recently led leaders to ask: Is it ethical to use the volume?

Eduard Pernkopf (1888-1955), author of the book commonly referred to as Pernkopf’s Atlas, was an Austrian doctor who was also a passionate supporter of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party, which allowed him to climb the ranks at the University of Vienna, where in 1943 he was appointed rector, the school’s highest official.

Pernkopf expelled all Jewish members of the medical school. In 1939, Nazi law dictated that the bodies of all executed prisoners be sent to the nearest department of anatomy for research and teaching purposes.

For 18 hours a day, Pernkopf worked tirelessly, dissecting bodies of gays, lesbians, gypsies, political prisoners and Jews killed by the Nazis, as artists drew detailed, colored images of their bodies. These drawings created what is considered today to be “the best example of anatomical drawings in the world,” BBC explained in a recent report.

Illustration from Pernkopf Topographic Anatomy of Man (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Pernkopf and the artists signed the book with their names, followed by the Nazi swastika and the SS insignia, though the latter was eventually removed.

In 2014, Dr. Susan E. Mackinnon of Washington University, St. Louis, a world-renowned nerve surgeon, saved the leg of a patient using Pernkopf’s book, which helped her trace a nerve and its branches, leading to a successful surgery.

However, shortly after the surgery, Mackinnon questioned the ethics of consulting Pernkopf’s book, taking into consideration its grim history. She told BBC that the book’s unrivaled accuracy helps “figure out which of the many small nerves that course through our body are potentially causing the pain.”

Bioethicist and Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Joseph Polak of Boston University, also commented on the book: “I hate to say it, but the illustrations are beyond spectacular.”

Asked by Mackinnon about the ethics in using the book, Polak told the BBC that, “If this is going to heal this person and give them their life back, then there is no question that the atlas can be used.”

Pernkopf himself was held at an Allied POW camp for three years after WWII but was never charged with war crimes. He returned to Vienna to continue his work on the atlas until his death in 1955, with the fourth volume almost completed.

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