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Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
November 26, 1996, Tuesday, Late Edition - Final
Section C; Page 1; Column 1; Science Desk

"Doctors Question Use Of Nazi's Medical Atlas"

By Nicholas Wade

A classic anatomy atlas, famed for the beauty and fine
detail of its paintings, has come under attack because of
some none too metaphorical skeletons in its past. A letter
appearing in tomorrow's issue of The Journal of the American
Medical Association says that the author of the atlas was a
leading Nazi who purged the University of Vienna medical
faculty of Jews and that the cadavers portrayed in the
paintings "may have been victims of political terror."

The book is known as the "Pernkopf Anatomy," and it is still
in use among specialists. Although there have long been
rumors of its dubious origins, the evidence now emerging
seems not to be widely known to anatomists, despite their
general admiration for the book.

An effort to publicize the background of the atlas is being
led by Dr. Howard A. Israel, an oral surgeon at Columbia
University, and Dr. William E. Seidelman, director of an
AIDS unit at the University of Toronto, who wrote the letter
to the journal. They want the University of Vienna to
inquire into the identity of the cadavers portrayed in the
atlas and for the publisher to include in the next edition a
historical account of the atlas so readers can then decide
whether it is ethical to make use of the material.

Edward B. Hutton, president of Waverly Inc., the American
publisher of the atlas, agreed that the University of Vienna
should undertake an inquiry into the identity of the
cadavers shown in the paintings, and said his company would
contribute to its cost. If the cadavers depicted should be
found to be from concentration camps, the victims would be
commemorated in future editions of the book, Mr. Hutton

"But there isn't one shred of evidence to date that the
cadavers used in this atlas came from concentration camp
victims, and in fact there is circumstantial evidence to the
contrary," Mr. Hutton said. Without such a finding, a new
preface would not be justified since "we separate the man
from his work," he said, referring to the author, Eduard

Dr. Israel has made an issue of the "Pernkopf Anatomy" atlas
because of what he describes as a personal sense of
betrayal. He used to pore over the book the night before he
performed surgery, using a copy his wife had given him as a
medical student. When a colleague one day mentioned the
rumor about Pernkopf's Nazi background, Dr. Israel got out
the old editions of the atlas from the library of Columbia-
Presbyterian Medical Center, where he works. He was
horrified to see that the artists' signatures in several
paintings incorporated small swastikas and double-lighting-
bolt SS signs. Those Nazi emblems had been airbrushed out of
later editions, like the one his wife had given him.

Dr. Israel, who describes himself as "a very ordinary
American Jew," said that "from that moment, I went nuts." He
explained, "I felt stupid at using the book, that I could
possibly have benefited from something that sounded so

Through talking with colleagues and searching the medical
literature, Dr. Israel found that
others had been aware of Pernkopf's background but had felt
that the book's merits made its continued use acceptable. He
has therefore raised the issue of the provenance of the
cadavers in the atlas, charging that they were probably
victims of the Nazi regime and may have been holocaust

Many anatomists have been so dazzled by the beauty of the
Pernkopf atlas that they have not peered much into the
shadows round its edges. In 1990, a reviewer in The New
England Journal of Medicine wrote of a new edition that
"this outstanding book" was in a "class of its own."

In the same year, a reviewer in The Journal of the American
Medical Association called it a "classic among atlases" with
illustrations that "are truly works of art." Dr. Malcolm H.
Hast, the author of that review and an anatomist at the
Northwestern University Medical School, said he had not
known of the book's background at the time but had heard
about it later. "I reviewed it just as a book," he said. "It
is one of the most beautiful anatomy books published."

David P. Williams, a professor of medical illustration at
Purdue University, said, "I always felt the paintings were
absolute masterpieces of anatomical art." Dr. Williams went
to Austria to study the historical background of the
Pernkopf atlas and its artists. His findings, published in
1988, seem to have received little attention, perhaps
because they appeared in a little-known journal and because
his appraisal was largely upbeat, even though it contained
some startling facts.

Pernkopf, he found, joined the Nazi party in 1933 and the
Sturmabteilung, or Brown Shirts, a year later. A fervent
believer in National Socialism, he was made dean of the
University of Vienna medical faculty at the time of Hitler's
invasion of Austria in March 1938, and he later became
president of the university. After the war, Pernkopf spent
three years in an Allied prison camp but was not charged
with war crimes. He then returned to the University of
Vienna to continue work on his atlas until his death in

Dr. Williams noted that the four principal artists used by
Pernkopf had also been active party members and that one of
them, Erich Lepier, had signed his paintings with a swastika
for a while. That practice, Dr. Williams wrote in his 1988
article, "helped to develop the most persistent rumor
associated with the work," that cadavers of concentration
camp victims had been used for dissections during the war.

Dr. Williams believes that this is not the case. During the
war, many cadavers used by the Anatomy Institute in Vienna
were those of people executed in the Vienna Landesgericht,
or  district court. Inquiring of Simon Wiesenthal's
Documentation Center in Vienna, Dr. Williams received a
letter from Mr. Wiesenthal in 1982 saying, "Concerning the
identity of the prisoners in the Wiener Landesgericht, I can
tell you that these were non-Jewish Austrian patriots,
communists and other enemies of the Nazis." Pernkopf had a
heavy teaching load because other medical schools had been
closed during the war, and he needed many cadavers for the
students to dissect. Dr. Williams said it was possible, but
not yet proved, that the bodies used as models for the atlas
during the war had also come from Landesgericht executions.

Medical schools today use only cadavers that have been
willingly donated. But anatomists are aware that their
subjects have historically included paupers, criminals and
even people specially executed for the scalpel. In Dr.
Williams's 1988 article, he focused on the achievement of
Pernkopf and his artists in completing their atlas during a
30-year period, and he viewed the project in the context of
a distinguished tradition of Viennese medical illustration
that had long preceded the Nazis. The work was begun in 1933
and completed, in several volumes, in 1960, five years after
Pernkopf's death. (The American edition uses only the
paintings, without Pernkopf's text.) Because of the Nazis'
treatment of Jews and others, Dr. Williams concluded,
Pernkopf's work "will always be controversial and will,
unfortunately, never be acknowledged by some as the
masterpiece it truly is."

Dr. Israel takes a less sanguine view, saying that the atlas
poses a problem if Pernkopf used any victims of the Nazi
terror, whether or not they were Jewish. He does, however,
believe that some of the victims may have been Jewish
because their heads are roughly shaved and a man in one
illustration is circumcised. Other anatomists note that
cadavers suitable for dissection need to have come from
people in good health and are unlikely to have been procured
from concentration camps.

The issue of whether the results of Nazi science can
ethically be used has come up before, notably in the case of
experiments in which people were fatally exposed to extreme
cold and to toxic gases. In 1988, the Environmental
Protection Agency ordered that Nazi data on human exposure
to phosgene gas be excluded from a study the agency had
commissioned. Some ethicists argue that all Nazi science
should be taboo, while others say the data should be used,
but in a way that helps commemorate the victims.

The Pernkopf atlas raises the issue in a different way
because, unlike the horrific experiments, it is widely
known, used and admired. Mr. Hutton, of Waverly, estimated
that thousands of copies had been printed in the 40 years
since it was first published. Waverly bought the original
publisher, Urban & Schwarzenberg, in 1990.

Dr. Hast, author of the Journal of the American Medical
Association review, believes that the book should continue
to be used. "If it's good anatomy, you can't throw it away,"
he said. "I used the book for years before I knew any of
this. Should I try to expurgate my mind of the knowledge
that I gained from the book?"

Dr. Ernest W. April, an anatomist at the Columbia University
College of Physicians and Surgeons, said Pernkopf's atlas
"is a phenomenal book, very complete and thorough and
authoritative, and you can't detract from that, regardless
of the fact that he might not have been a good person or
belonged to the wrong party."

But Dr. Israel no longer uses the Pernkopf volumes. "I have
looked at a lot of anatomy textbooks, and these are terrific
in terms of the quality of pictures," he said. "But that
doesn't mean it's right to use them."

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