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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.3 (2000) 382-388

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The Pernkopf Story: The Austrian Perspective of 1998, 60 Years After it All Began

Karl Holubar *

Symposium: Medical Research Ethics at the Millennium: What Have We Learned?

This is a preliminary report on the work of the Pernkopf Commission of the University of Vienna.

What Did We Do in the Pernkopf Case?

What did we do in the Pernkopf case? At first, nothing. It required a push from the other side of the Atlantic and from Yad Vashem to make the University of Vienna aware that something must be done. Early replies to questions by Professor Seidelman and others were clumsy, missing the point, incredulous about the facts. In part, this was due to the low public threshhold sensitivity vis-à-vis autopsies, dissection, and anatomical use of bodies in general. This is due to historical regulations, in force for about two and a half centuries and beyond the scope of this presentation. What had to be emphasized to ourselves was, that whatever the ultimate use of bodies, it widely concerned corpses of political prisoners--i.e., bodies of persons without criminal record, imprisoned, tried, sentenced, and executed by a criminal regime for alleged crimes which otherwise had gone unnoticed or constituted the individual, democratic rights of these persons. (Death sentences were given not only for murder, sexual assault, robbery, etc., but also for petty thefts, embezzlement of (military) mail, and "high treason"--defined at the time, as any political activities other than those in the interest of the government.) After execution, no consent was procured from families for anatomical studies, corpses were not delivered to the families, and no ritual burial was possible.

Based on the political profile of the author of the anatomical atlas, Eduard Pernkopf, an active proponent of the National Socialist system, and of at least one of the medical illustrators, questions must be raised--indeed [End Page 382] were raised in the United States by Yad Vashem, and later in Austria--concerning the circumstances under which the atlas was produced and whether the atlas may be considered scientifically valuable and ethically compatible with today's standards or not. To make a long story short, the University of Vienna eventually created a committee to investigate the matter, work which began last summer and is supposed to end later this spring.

Members of the committee consist of the rector (president), Professor Dr. A. Ebenbauer; the pro-rector (president-elect), Professor Dr. W. Greisenegger; the dean of the medical school, Professor Dr. W. Schütz; the previous dean (a professor of anatomy), Professor Dr. H. Gruber; Dr. G. Spann, historian and project leader; Dr. P. Malina and Claudia Spring from the Institute of Contemporary History of Vienna University; Dr. Avshalom Hodik from the Vienna Jewish Community; Dr. H. Gröger, Dr. Claudia Angetter, Dr. Sonja Horn, and myself from the Institute for the History of Medicine; Professor Dr. Wolfgang Neugebauer and Peter Schwarz, M.A., from the Austrian Archives of Resistance, Vienna; Dr. K. Mühlberger, archivist of Vienna University; Dozent Dr. Maria Teschler-Nicola and Dr. Margit Berner from the Museum of Natural History, Vienna; Professor Dr. Mitchell G. Ash, chair of Modern History, University of Vienna; and the press officer of the rector's office, B. Matouschek, M.A. 1

Technically, the investigation was difficult, due to the many years which have elapsed since the original publication of the atlas, and the death of the author and most of his assistants. In addition, heavy damage to the Institute of Anatomy by an air-raid of the Allied Forces on 7 February 1945 caused the destruction of both salient archival material and anatomical preparations. 2 [End Page 383]

The members of the commission have agreed not to publish any results before the report is completed. For this special occasion [the NIH Seminar at which this paper was originally presented], we agreed to make an exception and present some features of the interim statement of February 1998. I should like to...


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