The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

A "Troubled Masterpiece": the Pernkopf Atlas

A representation of the mediastinum

A representation of the mediastinum from Topographische Anatomie des Menschen

The most controversial pedagogical resource in the history of teaching anatomy is the Topographische Anatomie des Menschen (Topographical Human Anatomy), an anatomical atlas created by Eduard Pernkopf (1888-1955), director of the Second Anatomy Institute of the University of Vienna, and member of the National Socialist (Nazi) party in Germany from 1933 – 1945.

Anatomical study through human dissection began in Vienna in 1404, mostly through use of the bodies of executed persons. In 1742, dissection of the bodies of paupers who died in hospital was permitted by the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa.  These tacit sanctions paved the way for a 1939 decree from the Nazi Reichserziehungsminister (minister of education) that all bodies of executed persons should be sent to the nearest department of anatomy for dissection.

The controversy over the use of bodies of people executed for crimes against the Reich came to a head in 1997, when the University of Vienna responded to political pressure to investigate and document the origins of bodies used in the preparation of Pernkopf’s atlas.

Pernkopf was an ardent Nazi who viewed individuals as nothing more than parts in a larger “body of the people,” a body in which disease or physical abnormalities were viewed as a threat against society.  Pernkopf published the first volume of his atlas in 1937 – the last was published in the 1980’s.  His atlas is valued as an exemplar of the “regional stratigraphic” approach to anatomical drawing, and presents one of the most accurate depictions of fascia and neurovascular structures in print.

Results of the University’s investigation were published in the Lancet in 2000.  While many University records were destroyed in bombing raids in 1945, sufficient information was gleaned from extant records to document that at least 1,377 bodies of executed persons, including 7 of Jewish origins, were dissected in Pernkopf’s labs.

The Pernkopf atlas remains in library collections as testament to controversy, to the evolution of consent, and to the ongoing dialogue between physicians and medical specimens.