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Eduard Pernkopf

Born  1888
Died  1955

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Austrian anatomist, born November 24, 1888, Rappottenstein, Niederösterreich; died April 17, 1955.

Biography of Eduard Pernkopf

The following biography is mainly based on the article "The History of Eduard Pernkopf's Topographische Anatomie des Menschen" (see bibliography) by David J. Williams, Professor and Director, Medical Illustration and Communications, Purdue University. His article is a must for anybody who wants to know more about this subject. We thank David J. Williams for permission to use this material.

Eduard Pernkopf was the son of a practicing physician and the youngest of three children. Already as a child his great interest was music, but his father died in 1903, and in order to help support his family he decided on a medical career. After attending the Horn Gymnasium he enrolled in the Vienna Medical School in 1907. Here he was active in a nationalistic German student fraternity, Die akademische Burschenschaft Allemania, founded in 1815. Pernkopf received his medical degree in 1912. From that year he was assistant in the II. Anatomical institute of Vienna and for the next fourteen taught anatomy at various posts throughout Austria. He also served as a physician for one year during World War I.

The abilities of the young physician were noted by Ferdinand Hochstetter (1861-1954), director of the anatomical institute in Vienna, who soon became a father figure for Pernkopf. He taught Pernkopf topographical anatomy and in 1920 Pernkopf became his assistant. Pernkopf was habilitated for anatomy in 1921, becoming professor extraordinary in 1926, and in May, 1928, he became professor of anatomy at the University of Vienna. In April, 1933, he succeeded Ferdinand Hochstetter (1861-1954) as director of the anatomical institute.

Pernkopf was a fervent believer in National Socialism. He joined the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Worker's Party, NSDAP, or Nazi Party in 1933 and the Sturmabteilung, SA, or Brown Shirts, a year later. After Hitler's invasion of Austria in 1938, the Anschluss, he was instated as dean of the medical school. One of his first acts as dean was to purge the medical school faculty of Jews and other undesirable members. The University of Vienna, once among the premier medical schools of Europe, lost 153 of its 197 faculty members, including 3 Nobel laureates.

In his first official speech in his new capacity, Pernkopf issued the following charge to his faculty in words that clearly predict both euthanasia and eventual Holocaust:

"To assume the medical care -- with all your professional skill -- of the body of the people which has been entrusted to you, not only in the positive sense of furthering the propagation of the fit, but also in the negative sense of eliminating the unfit and defective. The methods by which racial hygiene proceeds are well known to you: control of marriage, propagation of the genetically fit whose genetic, biologic constitution promises healthy descendants: discouragement of breeding by individuals who do not belong together properly, whose races clash: finally, the exclusion of the genetically inferior from future generations by sterilization and other means."

Pernkopf remained dean until 1943, during which time he completed his first atlas, then from 1943 to 1945 he was Rektor Magnificus (president) of the University of Vienna. His rise to this position could not have happened without the approval of the NSDAP-controlled Ministry of Education in Berlin.

His anatomical atlas, the magnificently illustrated Topographische Anatomie des Menschen (Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy), maps the human body in exquisite detail and has been hailed as one of the most important anatomic atlases since the work of Vesalius. In the mid 1990s, however, when the university's wartime practices were investigated, it was assumed that Pernkopf arranged for the bodies of nearly 1400 people executed by the Gestapo, mostly for political reasons, to serve as models for the atlas' drawings. This is not a settled question, however.

His work on the atlas began in 1933 when he signed a contract with the Urban & Schwarzenberg, then based in Vienna, and attracted a number of gifted Viennese artists who could render his meticulous dissections in incredible detail. Their collaboration coincided with the development and refinement of four-colour separation, a printing technique which enabled the more than 800 watercolour paintings produced for his work to be reproduced in colour with great fidelity to the originals.

Like Pernkopf, the artists were also active party members. The first of them was Erich Lepier (1898-1974) who, for a while, signed his paintings with a Hakenkreuz (swastika). Lepier became the leader of the other artists who followed, of which the most important were Ludwig Schrott, Jr. (1906-1970), Karl Endtresser (1903-1978), and Franz Batke (1903-1983). After the war they were joined by Werner Platzer.

Although never charged with war crimes, Pernkopf spent three years in an Allied prison camp near Salzburg after the war. When he was released in 1948 he was in many ways a broken and dispirited man, but returned to the university, stripped of all titles, to resume work on his atlas. He died suddenly of a stroke while working on the first book of the fourth volume.

We thank Franz Felberbauer for information submitted.


  • Topographische Anatomie des Menschen. 1943. Many later editions.
    (Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy), compiled by Eduard Pernkopf. This magnificently illustrated work has been hailed as one of the most important anatomic atlases since the work of Vesalius. It was published from 1937.
  • Anatomie.
    In: Lehrbuch der Krankenpflegeschulen, volume 4. Leipzig and Vienna, 1922. 2nd edition 1929.
  • D. J. Williams:
    The History of Eduard Pernkopf's Topographische Anatomie des Menschen.
    Journal of Biocommunication, San Francisco, Spring 1988, 15 (2): 2-12.

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