Anatomy and Ethics

Second annual celebration of Anatomy Day highlights ethics

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Students view artifacts from the Warren Anatomical Museum at Anatomy Day. 360 Image: Jay Shemenski 

 

The Pernkopf Atlas, an illustrated anatomy book published in 1937, is known for its remarkably accurate watercolor drawings, but it is also a book that “some doctors have told me they can’t bear to use after knowing its dark history,” said Sabine Hildebrandt, Harvard Medical School instructor and assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital.

At the Countway Library’s second annual Anatomy Day on Sept. 16, Hildebrandt used the atlas as a way to educate HMS students on the importance of ethics and anatomy in the world of modern medicine. The atlas is thought to present one of the most significant ethical dilemmas in the history of anatomy, according to Hildebrandt.

Eduard Pernkopf, an Austrian professor with affiliations to the Nazi party, published the book in Germany in the early 1900s. Hildebrandt explained that in recent years, questions have been raised about whether the figures depicted in the atlas were victims of the Holocaust.

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Hildebrandt said that an in-depth investigation indicated that cadavers used for the drawings in the atlas were primarily of Austrians executed for political reasons. However, several doctors still question whether the images depict Jewish victims and have concerns over whether to use the atlas if the bodies weren’t voluntarily donated to science as medical schools today.

Because of its highly controversial nature, Hildebrandt says, “It’s imperative that students learn to interrogate the images they see in the atlas.” She encourages students to form their own opinion of using the book and she, like many professionals, finds value in it for teaching purposes.

"Anatomy Day completely revolutionized my understanding of the history of anatomy.” — Ameen Barghi ’20.

This year, Anatomy Day took place in the Lahey Room of the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, highlighting the contributions of scientists in the past.

Coming at the close of a rigorous first-semester anatomy curriculum, professors, librarians and museum curator Dominic Hall joined first-year HMS students to explore what students described as a fascinating history of anatomy. 

“Anatomy is so fixated in time and very few discoveries are made today, and it’s just incredibly interesting to learn about the history,” said medical student Michael Dinh.

Artifacts in the Warren Anatomical Museum dating to the early 18th and 19th centuries were arranged around the room chronologically for students to examine them. Objects included antique medical instruments, a skull with wax veins and, of course, the Pernkopf Atlas.

The collection transported students back to the days when anatomical images were hand carved and then printed with ink or later painted in watercolors. After examining the ethics of Anatomy Day in the library, students were given a tour of the wet-specimen lab and were able to look at a small sample of the specimens housed in the Warren Museum.

"Anatomy Day completely revolutionized my understanding of the history of anatomy, both in terms of the discipline's scientific development and of its historically influenced context,” said Ameen Barghi ’20.