Should we continue using Nazi medical data in modern medicine?

Eduard Pernkopf and other atlas anatomy illustrators

I’ve never written about the holocaust before or its role in my life, but this year I was drawn to discuss the issue of medical ethics, and the question of whether we should use medical data gathered during the time of the Nazis.

We know there were 23 doctors tried during Nuremberg at the close of WW II, but we don’t often think about the hundreds of physicians who returned to their offices and institutions after the war or the dozens of experiments that went on during the Third Reich, or the fact that we still use their information today.

I remember vividly when I was in college and learned that detailed anatomy pictures from the Pernkopf anatomy textbook, still in use, were renderings of prisoner cadavers executed during Nazi rule.  The level of detail was incredible and accurate. Decades of medical students learned the body through those precise renderings.

The question is: should we still use those drawings?

It also turns out that some great neuropsychological understandings, even the identification of a disease, came from the investigation of over 2000 brains harvested from bodies that were gassed at various psychiatric centers in Germany and Austria.

Data on how the body responds to extreme cold, altitude, infection were also meticulously collected.  Since the 1980s, scientists began questioning whether these data sets, if relevant to current animal experiments, could be used, if actual human data are impossible (or morally unethical), to access?

It is unclear whether actual scientific advances were made using concentration camp based horrific ‘experiments’ during those years.  However, I don’t think that anyone can argue that the study of hundreds of thousands of human tissue samples and detailed drawings of corpses obviously influenced and widened our understanding of the human body, despite the fact that they were given without consent, and under torturous conditions.

Pernkopf’s anatomy atlas, the one I used in college, was still published in 1989.  In 1998, Urban & Schwarzenberg, its publisher, was acquired by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck . In 1999, it was merged with another publishing house owned by Georg von Holtzbrinck, and became Urban & Fischer. In 2003, Urban & Fischer was acquired by Elsevier.

You may not be familiar with Elsevier, but as a central publisher of dozens of scientific journals, I am quite familiar with this publishing house.  I wonder if they still have all those drawings?

The question remains: “Can research data obtained through unethical methods be used for ethical methods and beneficial results?”

I honestly don’t know.  What do you think?

(with information from: The Nazi Anatomists: How the corpses of Hitler’s victims are still haunting modern science—and American abortion politics, nov 6, 2013; 2014)



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