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The anatomical atlas used by doctors has a dark history. One man is pushing for change


The images of "The Pernkopf Topographic Anatomy Of Man" are delicately complex, clearly diagrammed and full of detail. It's an illustrated atlas of the human body, showing layers of tissues, organs, and bones, and as helpful as the multivolume anatomical atlas has been for generations of doctors, it's no longer in print because it's problematic to say the very least. Eduard Pernkopf, the Austrian doctor who oversaw its creation, was a loyal supporter of Adolf Hitler. The bodies he used as models belong to prisoners who died in Nazi prisons. Many of them were dissidents, gay men, lesbians, and Jews. The LA Times reported last week about a project that's underway to create a new atlas of the human body, one without this horrific history. We're joined by Dr. Kalyanam Shivkumar, who is a cardiologist at UCLA behind that project. Welcome to the program.

KALYANAM SHIVKUMAR: Thank you so much.

RASCOE: How did you first learn about the Pernkopf atlas?

SHIVKUMAR: So the a tlas came to my attention around the year 2012. This entire collection was gifted to me by a colleague. We were at that time searching for the very best resources on anatomy of the heart in our case, but obviously also to understand nerves in the human body. And when this entire collection arrived, I was almost, you know, taken aback by the quality of the work. But my colleague who gifted the book had already sort of indicated to me that it actually had a very disturbing link in historical background, and that's how my sort of introduction to the Pernkopf atlases came about.

RASCOE: And I understand that you, as well as many other doctors, have been incredibly conflicted about using this atlas. Why not just use a different one? Like, why is this one still in use?

SHIVKUMAR: So the answer is twofold. One is, the time and effort that was put into creating the original atlases shows in the quality of the work they had produced. It actually has fine details which you simply don't find in other books. And many bootleg copies were floating around after its sort of very depressing history came into being, and it went out of print. Of course, older copies were still acquired and so forth.

RASCOE: So tell us about your project, starting with the name.

SHIVKUMAR: Yes, so in medical school, one of our founding, you know, principles is to make sure that there are no ethical violations. We teach our students, you know, some of the huge violations that have happened. And of course, when you see this type of work, where you see that, you know, there were prisoners, and these were people who were murdered, and people just went on to say, OK, let's just acknowledge it and move on, but still continue to use it. That didn't sit well with me. And at that time, to answer you, the first part of your question, we coined the term "Amara Yad." And that is sort of a combination of two words. Amara in Sanskrit means eternal. Yad in the Hebrew language means hand. So we coined the term "Immortal Hand" for this project to say that we're going to surpass this and create completely new atlases that will be far more detailed, way more artistic, and something that will really inform what medicine needs today.

RASCOE: Well, how are you getting cadavers for this project?

SHIVKUMAR: This comes from a UCLA program, which is called the willed body program, where many people leave their body for medical research. And it's one of the most noble contributions people make.

RASCOE: Well, you talked about how detailed the Pernkopf atlas was. How does this one - and you want this one to surpass it. How do you feel like it's better?

SHIVKUMAR: We spent a lot of time, in fact, a few years, contemplating how we would go about doing it. We'd take various parts of the body, but especially the heart, since we started with it, and we use very powerful laser microscopes to get very fine structural details. I would say that this is almost like the space program, but it's the inner space. We're looking at the human body in a completely new light. And that is how we surpass Pernkopf, by completely leapfrogging it. It's ethically sourced, and it's also highly contemporary. And we are working with our collaborators around the world who have this type of expertise. So that is how Pernkopf can and will be beaten.

RASCOE: You know, think about the Hippocratic Oath, that - do no harm. In a way, is your project an attempt to undo a harm?

SHIVKUMAR: I think what Pernkopf and those types of people have done is they've harmed what should be very pure, which is medical education. What one rabbi very poignantly said, it's a fruit of a poisonous tree. So in that sense, it's a moral corrective. We are undoing a harm. And in doing so, we are also providing a vastly superior source of information for the world to use.

RASCOE: That's Dr. Kalyanam Shivkumar, talking about his ongoing project to create a better anatomical atlas. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SHIVKUMAR: Thank you so much for the interview, and we appreciate the opportunity to share our work with all your listeners. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.