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October 2012 Malloch Circle Lecture & Reception

Date: October 10, 2012
Time: 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM


Sabine Hildebrandt, MD

Location: The New York Academy of Medicine, 1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, New York, NY 10029

Lecture Title: "Anatomy in the Third Reich"

Anatomists, like all other professionals, were distinctly affected by the National Socialist (NS) regime governing Germany from 1933 to 1945. Some of them became victims of so-called "racial" and political persecution, others acted as avid supporters of the new regime, but most were political fellow travelers trying to preserve their professional careers. Anatomists were involved in the escalating execution practices of the NS judicial system as they made use of the bodies of those executed after civilian and military court processes and other NS-victims for anatomical purposes. The use of tissues from the executed was an accepted method in German anatomy that was viewed as a "gold standard" for histological research long before 1933, but the method changed considerably during the Third Reich by including large-scale projects and studies of women. Distribution of the bodies of the executed from execution chambers to universities was legally regulated and all anatomy departments used these bodies for teaching and often research.

These practices were not publicly discussed or criticized by anatomists at the time or after the war. While only the most politically active anatomists were permanently removed from their positions by the Allied Forces, all others remained. This personal continuity as well as the successors' loyalty to their teachers led to a delayed discussion of the history of anatomy in the Third Reich. After initial international inquiries, e.g., into the origin of the Pernkopf atlas, German anatomical departments have started to explore their history in the last two decades. While these investigations first tended to focus on the perpetrators of unethical acts, current studies endeavor to identify the victims.

In 2012 the German Anatomical Society has publicly admitted responsibility for its history in the Third Reich by publishing a special edition of the Annals of Anatomy which focuses on this topic and by remembering the victims in a memorial "roll of honor" in its 125-year anniversary commemorative publication. Lessons to be learned from this history are firstly, that scientists cannot pursue their scientific interests detached from the ethics of the societal environment, and secondly, that international guidelines for the ethical handling of human bodies in anatomical institutions and elsewhere need to be developed and enforced.

About the Speaker(s)

Dr. Hildebrandt trained as a physician at Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany. After an early interest in experimental rheumatology she embarked on a career in medical education. She has been teaching anatomy at the Division of Anatomical Sciences, Department of Medical Education, at the University of Michigan Medical School since 2002. Her research focuses on the history and ethics of anatomy, specifically the history of anatomy in National Socialist Germany. Her publications in this area have contributed to the realization of a first German symposium on anatomy in National Socialism in 2010. The proceedings of this symposium where published in a special-edition of the Annals of Anatomy, which she co-guest-edited (Ann Anat Vol.194, 2012). She continues to investigate the fates of victims of anatomy in the Third Reich and teaches courses on the subject.


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