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Medics Dispute Over Names of Diseases

by VR Sreeraman on September 1, 2007 at 8:24 PM
Medics Dispute Over Names of Diseases

Strange but true: If you are a doctor, one of the greatest honours to which you can aspire is to have a nightmarish disease named after you.

Hundreds of so-called eponyms dot the medical textbooks, enshrining the name of a man or woman (Alzheimer, Parkinson, Hodgkin and so on) who became the first to identify some horrible ailment, describe symptoms or devise a new diagnostic test.


But the time-honoured practice is under threat, judging by a fierce debate in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Anti-eponymists are lobbying for the tradition to be given the elbow.

Names, especially when it comes to obscure conditions or procedures, can sow confusion and often are historically untruthful, write British renal physician Alexander Woywodt and US rheumatologist Eric Matteson.

Many doctors are unable to remember what an eponym stands for, and some eponyms are understood differently by different people, they say. For instance, de Quervain's disease can mean either an inflammation of hand tendons, or a rare thyroid disorder.

And, say Woywodt and Matteson, some names are quite inappropriate, for they fail to honour others who contributed to the medical breakthrough or are tainted by history.

This is the case of Hans Reiter and Friedrich Wegener, who are remembered respectively for the discovery of a form of arthritis and a skin infection called granulomatosis. Reiter took part in atrocious Nazi experiments on humans, while Wegener was a student of the Nazi doctrine of racial "purity."

Nonsense, retorts pro-eponymist Judith Whitworth, director of the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra, Australia.

Eponyms bring colour, tradition and culture to medicine -- and also provide a useful shorthand.

"Do we really want to speak of congenital cyanotic heart disease due to ventricular septal defect, pulmonary stenosis, right ventricular hypertrophy and aortic dextroposition, rather than Fallot's tetralogy?" she asks.

"Eponyms are here today to stay," she says. In other words -- it's Hobson's choice.

Source: AFP
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