In Star Trek VI, Kirk and McCoy beam aboard the Klingon ship after the assassination attempt. McCoy fails to save Chancellor Gorkon's life, and in the process, he admits that he doesn't know Klingon anatomy. Why not? Does Starfleet train their doctors only on human anatomy? Or only friendly species' anatomy?

Even if your only goal is to kill them, understanding your enemy's physiology will give you an advantage. If you're in hand to hand combat with a Klingon, you're much better off knowing where blood vessels and vital organs are. Same goes for Klingon ships. You need to know where to target your weapons in order to inflict the most damage.

If your goal is to serve as ambassadors, which is one of the missions of Starfleet, you would think that knowing Klingon anatomy would be beneficial, in case you encountered Klingons in need to assistance.

2 Answers 2


I don't think the whole problem was ever explained and I guess in the end it's really just a plot device, especially considering how often McCoy scanned and treated alien lifeforms without any problems.

While I can't name any "precedent", the movie's story is essentially a trope: two parties want to make piece, hardliners sabotage it, inconvenient situations make everything worse while also masking the hardliners' plans. Later episodes will repeat similar plots, e.g. Voyager's crew trying to make peace with the Kazon.

However, if you really want to, you can roughly make sense of it:

McCoy said he doesn't know anything about Klingon anatomy. He probably meant he doesn't impromptu know anything significant about their anatomy.

This essentially left McCoy in a situation most of us could find themselves in:

It's considered basic knowledge to know the rough position and workings of human organs. What the heart does, the airflow through the lungs, etc. However, this basic knowledge doesn't make any of us capable of properly taking care of deep/penetrating wounds to the torso.

In a similar way, McCoy probably knew how Klingon organs are aligned, what they do, etc. yet he won't know without looking into books/databases on what to do e.g. to stabilize some organ or stop internal bleeding somewhere else (assuming such cases are documented at all). These wounds weren't just scratches or amputations. As far as I remember he even stated that he doesn't know which medication to try, as it could kill him. Even modern medicine faces such things in emergencies, considering allergic reactions and other things doctors have to consider.

Starfleet (and other races) probably gathered anatomical data, but also don't forget the Klingons' approach to warfare: it's considered shameful to get imprisoned, so chances are high Starfleet had next to no encounters with living wounded Klingons to "treat" or study. Also don't forget that many Klingons would rather die right now rather than being treated for longer periods of time (see Worf getting paraplegic in TNG), so chances are also high Starfleet could never steal any such information either.


The Federation and the Klingon Empire were at war for a long time blasting each other. I imagine both species wouldn't be overly familiar with each physiology enough to save anyone.

  • Killing each other is exactly why they should know each other's anatomy. I edited my question to reflect this. Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 18:21
  • @brian they mostly fight in space, with ships exploding. And neither use chemical or biological warfare. Why would they need to know their anatomy?
    – cde
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 0:21
  • @cde Yes, mostly. But the Klingons have knives and swords for a reason. Starfleet issues phasers for a reason. It's not unreasonable to think that humans and Klingons might fight face to face at some point, and that basic anatomy would at least be part of their combat training. The possibility of a Starfleet doctor needing to heal a Klingon wasn't completely unthinkable, was it? Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 3:03
  • @Brian considering they have been at war since day one, sure it was.
    – cde
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 3:22
  • @Brian there was little to no land battles or shared/contested territories, and Star Fleet isn't a military. We also know exactly how Star Fleet training goes, and none of it is offensive combat. AND even if they conducted post-mortem autopsies, that would do nothing to train Star Fleet doctors on Klingon medical needs.
    – cde
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 4:34

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