Nazi Anatomical Drawings are Donated in Effort to Address Ethical Quandary — and Spotlight a Dark History

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tags: Nazism, World War 2, medical history

The drawings in the anatomical atlas are seen as unparalleled in their detail of winding nerves and minute blood vessels, and are still used today in medical education and surgery. But the Pernkopf Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy, first published around 1940, comes with a tainted, gruesome history: Many of the drawings were based in part on the bodies of people executed by the Nazis, and the Viennese medical illustrators were Nazis themselves.

After a decadeslong saga involving scholars, publishing disagreements, and eventually lawyers, the original illustrations of the Pernkopf atlas have been donated to the Medical University of Vienna by publisher Elsevier — the latest chapter in a slow reckoning over the book’s origins, which started to come to light in the mid-1980s. The illustrations will be part of an exhibition on the history of medicine in the Josephinum, which houses the university’s historical collections and is set to open in April 2022 after renovations are completed, and they will be available for research purposes as historical documents. The December 2019 donation was brought to light in a paper published late last month in Annals of Anatomy. 

STAT spoke with experts who have studied the atlas and its origins for years, who said that the donation is a step in the right direction and one many have long hoped for. The exhibition of the Pernkopf atlas will lead more people to find out about and examine its past, they said, as well as prompt increased discussion of its use, Nazi science, and unethical sources of scientific research.

“I’m almost speechless, I’m so grateful,” said Susan Mackinnon, a professor of surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis who has grappled with her continued use of the atlas in teaching and procedures — and how best to disclose its origins to students and patients. “I don’t think this is an ending. I think this is just the beginning.”

Read entire article at Stat

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