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The holocaust and medicine—a learning moment

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7518.668 (Published 22 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:668
  1. Uri Weinberg, MD/PhD, programme fifth year medical student (reis{at}netvision.net.il),
  2. Shmuel Reis, coordinator, programme for the study of the holocaust and medicine (reis{at}netvision.net.il)
  1. The R and B Rappaport Faculty of Medicine, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel

    A day after holocaust memorial day, I (UW), as an anatomy instructor, was preparing for a first year students' lesson with a colleague. A question arose, and we looked for the answer in the anatomy textbooks that we had at that time. We were surprised to find a copy of Pernkopf's Atlas, with its detailed manner and unique style of illustrations. Shocked and trembling, we came across an illustration of a neck dissection of a shaven headed man which, according to the illustrator's signature, had been drawn in 1943.

    In 1933 Eduard Pernkopf, head of the anatomy school of Vienna University, began preparing an anatomical atlas. An ardent Nazi, he became dean in 1938 and president of the university in 1943. Among his first actions as dean was to “purify” the medical school of all Jews by expelling a total of 153 of the 197 faculty members. He also arranged for the bodies of nearly 1400 people executed by the Gestapo, most of them for political reasons, to serve as models for his atlas.

    Only the day before finding the atlas, we had heard the story behind its creation during a noon conference we hold annually in our faculty, and for us, finding a textbook with such a history, had additional significance. We felt revolted that students had been using this book for so many years without being aware of its history. The fact that these books were discovered in a medical school in Israel, coincidentally in the same week as we commemorated the holocaust, enhanced those feelings. An inspection revealed further copies on the faculty's library shelves. There was no reference to their background either inside the books or in the library files.

    We have decided to share this learning moment. These books, rather than being destroyed, can be used for educating students, faculty, and public. This will also be an appropriate way to commemorate the many victims used in the atlas's production. It would be appropriate to display the books in public, along with an explanation of the horrific background to their creation. We hope that such an exposure will lead to a further search for other sources with similar histories. Our medical students association, in cooperation with the programme for the study of the holocaust and medicine in the faculty, would like to bring this issue to the attention of medical students in Israel and worldwide. The involvement of medical students in such decisions and activities is of great importance. As future doctors or scientists, we should think of ways to learn from the terrible past.

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