Should scientists use Eduard Pernkopf's anatomy book? September 2019

Eduard Pernkopf's anatomy book, often called Pernkopf's Atlas, provides doctors with detailed drawings of the human body peeled back layer by later. It is no longer in print and a second-hand set can sell for thousands of pounds online.

Yet despite its clear value, few would proudly display it in their clinic, library or home. Why is this?

Task 1: In small groups go to the following link and read the article.

The Nazi book of anatomy still used by surgeons (BBC News)

Eduard Pernkopf created an "atlas" of anatomy by dissecting the bodies of Nazi political prisoners.

In your group discuss whether you agree that scientists and medics should use the book today.

Note down the initial viewpoints of your group and then consider the question using different ways of knowing by completing the chart below. (Copy out the chart or print off the PDF).

Does the response of your group change as you work through the chart?

Chart on Eduard Pernkopf's book

Task 2:

Now consider how historical resources are used in different knowledge frameworks. 


As you have read in the article, critics of those scientists that use the book today focus on the ethics of utilising a resource with such a dark history.  A British surgeon, Dr Mackinnon, admits that she is uncomfortable using the book, but as an ‘ethical surgeon’ she needs to refer to it to do her job well. 

Does your group agree with Mackinnon’s viewpoint? 


A Holocaust survivor, Rabbi, and professor of health law, Joseph Polak, suggests that the book is a ‘moral enigma’ as it was derived from ‘real evil’ but could be used for good.

How would those applying a Utilitarian, Rights and duties or Virtue Ethics framework view the use of the book by modern doctors?

History, Science and Ethics

Bioethicist, Dr Jonathan Ives suggests that the book is tainted by its ‘horrific past’ and poses two positions:

A] In using the book, and reaping the benefits, it could be deemed we are somehow ‘complicit’

B] In not using the book, it would eventually be lost to science and it could not be used as a ‘reminder of what happened’


How might historians use Pernkopf’s book?  What type of research topics and questions would Pernkopf’s book be a relevant source for?  Would historians face ethical challenges in using the book as a source? 

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