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A UCLA doctor is on a quest to free modern medicine from a Nazi-tainted anatomy book

Emily Alpert Reyes, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

LOS ANGELES — As Dr. Kalyanam Shivkumar pondered how to fix the human heart, he was given a gift laced with horror.

Shivkumar, a cardiac electrophysiologist known as "Shiv" to friends and co-workers at UCLA, was trying to better understand the intricate details of nerves in the chest. He hoped doing so might help him improve treatments for cardiac arrhythmias — aberrant rhythms of the heart — that can prove dangerous and even deadly.

A Canadian colleague sent him a set of anatomy books renowned for the beauty and detail of their drawings, but tipped him off that the "atlas" had an appalling history.

Shivkumar was aghast to learn it was the work of an ardent Nazi whose Vienna institute had dissected the bodies of prisoners, many executed for political reasons after Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938.

"Every time I open up that book," he said, "my sense is revulsion."

Shivkumar is a big thinker, an erudite physician quick with an apt quotation, whose Westwood office is stacked with Sanskrit volumes of the Mahabharata alongside books about late UCLA Bruins basketball coach John Wooden.

 

As he waded into the scholarly debate over using the tainted atlas, the doctor bristled at hearing others praise its illustrations as "unsurpassable." Much of the soul searching among physicians had revolved around when and how to use it. Shivkumar wanted to put those questions to bed.

"Could we be better?" he asked. "Could we not be making something that's completely untainted?"

That question would launch Shivkumar on a quest that has lasted more than a decade and is expected to endure for years. He wants to surpass the anatomical atlas created by Dr. Eduard Pernkopf, a fervent supporter of the Nazi regime whose work was fueled by the dead bodies of its victims.

His passion project at the UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center is called Amara Yad, a mashup of Sanskrit and Hebrew meaning "immortal hand." The work has relied on the generosity of people who have willed their bodies for use at UCLA, as well as hearts that were donated but could not be used for transplant.

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