Who is Eduard Pernkopf and why should we care?
Eduard Pernkopf was a Nazi. That is the short of it. He also created an anatomical atlas that has become a notorious source of ethical debate since at least the 1990s.
So, who was Eduard Pernkopf?
Pernkopf was an Austrian medical doctor. During World War 1, he served as a military physician for Austria. After the war, he returned to the University of Vienna and became an Anatomy Instructor for the medical school. By 1928 he was a full professor and by 1933 he was the director of the anatomical institute. Also in 1933, Pernkopf pledged his allegiance to the Nazi party, later becoming a member of the Sturmabteilung, Hitler’s pre-war Stormtroopers.
In 1933, he also started work on his anatomical atlases. Four artists rendered watercolor portraits of his dissections, Pernkopf set out to create the most realistic representations of cadaveric dissections ever available with the caveat that the color be as realistic as possible. Two volumes ended up being published, one in 1937 and one in 1941. By 1941, all four of the artists joined active military or paramilitary service for Germany.
So, why is this atlas so controversial?
In 1938, Pernkopf became Dean of the medical college at the University of Vienna. He immediately expelled all non-Aryan professors; at Vienna, that meant over 75% of the faculty, several of whom would end up dying in concentration camps across occupied German territory. As Dean, Pernkopf enacted a strict racial hygiene approach to medicine. Across occupied Germany, medical schools were teaching that there were inferior anatomical characteristics of non-Aryans like Jews, Gypsies, Romani, and Poles, and homosexuals.
As a footnote to history, no one was forcing these scientists to go along with ideas like racial hygiene. In fact, it seems like the scientists were the driving force behind these ideas. Spurred on by eugenicists in the U.S., Nazi scientists were pushing hard for eugenics in Germany. This lead to forced sterilization, anti-miscegenation and anti-immigrant laws, and euthanasia. These were the three basic prongs of the Nazi Volksgesundheit, or Public Health. By 1934, forced sterilization turned to euthanasia of people deemed mentally feeble. Early euthanasia programs turned to Holocaust as Germans placed non-Aryans in concentration, work, and prison camps.
As you can imagine, a lot of dead bodies meant a steady supply of cadavers for teaching and research at the 31 German or German occupied medical schools in Europe. There is evidence that while Pernkopf was dean, the University of Vienna medical school accepted 1,377 executed prisoners. It was customary that the medical schools would have embalming centers at the execution sites so that cadaveric materials could stay as fresh as possible.
There is questionable imagery within the atlases; images of emaciated cadavers in poor condition. There is also Nazi imagery in the signatures of the artists.
So, we have a bunch of Nazis who were very racist and who used very questionable sources for dissection to make their controversial anatomical atlas.
But, Vienna was bombed by allied forces in 1945. The university sustained heavy damage and the records containing the information about where the bodies used for the atlas came from were destroyed.
Did he use executed prisoners or not? And what should we do about the book?
Come find out and discuss the answers to these questions at the workshop Pernkopf, NAZIs, and MVCC at the 2018 HAPS Conference in Columbus.
This post was written by Aaron Fried, Assistant Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Mohawk Valley Community College. Thanks to my colleagues and willing editors: Shannon Crocker, Eileen Bush, Don Kelly, Bill Perrotti, Emeritis, and the late Sam Drogo.