oa Fundamina : A Journal of Legal History - Revisiting the infamous Pernkopf Anatomy Atlas : historical lessons for medical law and ethics

Volume 18, Issue 2
  • ISSN : 1021-545X
  • E-ISSN: 2411-7870



The Pernkopf Anatomy Atlas was compiled in Austria during the Nazi era (1938 to 1945) by Eduard Pernkopf, professor of anatomy and director of the Anatomy Institute at the University of Vienna. Initially, the Atlas was hailed as a classic "masterpiece of unsurpassed beauty", with reference to the anatomical illustrations, until it was discovered in the 1980s and mid-1990s that Pernkopf and his talented illustrators (all ardent Nazis), had used human material obtained from executed victims of Nazi terror to illustrate the Atlas. In addition, it transpired that the illustrators had signed some of the illustrations with offensive Nazi insignia (the swastika and the "SS bolts"). Amid international condemnation and outrage, whether the Atlas should be rejected or continued to be used has continued to be fiercely debated. This article revisits the Atlas with specific reference to transgressions of medical law and ethics, the debate about the continued use of the Atlas, as well as the startling revelation of the complicity of the medical and legal professions in providing the Nazi regime with the legitimacy it needed for the implementation of its political ideology. Ultimately, this article assesses the lessons to be learned from this historical, but contaminated publication. It is argued that the principle of moral complicity, the right to human dignity and, ultimately, civilisation all militate against the continued use of the Atlas.

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