Eponyms are a “long-standing tradition” in medicine. In other words, physicians and scientists throughout history have been honored by having their name attached to the disease they discover. This common practice has resulted in a veritable phone-book-length list of obscure historical references for med students to wade through.

This made sense in an era where there was no understanding of the underlying cause of a disease (you have to name it something, right?). In the modern era, however, we know enough about diseases to be able to give them meaningful names. For this reason, many diseases are acquiring dual names, half historical and half descriptive (e.g. Lynch syndrome/hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer). Also, as certain eponyms become tainted with Nazi affiliation they lose favor and are replace with more descriptive labels.

From a student’s perspective, the descriptive names are a godsend. To use one example, Churg-Strauss syndrome can be more helpfully labeled Eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangitis (EGPA). “Eosinophilic”, “gramulomatosis”, and “polyangitis” each represent a fundamental concept in pathology, and when taken together they convey a load of info about the disease. “Churg-Strauss” rolls off the tongue but doesn’t give any helpful hints as to what it means. Worse yet, you will run into diseases like Berger disease and Buerger disease that have nothing to do with each other but can be very distracting as answer choices in our med school exams.

I can appreciate the desire to honor our own in a meaningful way. I enjoy the color and pride that these names bring to the profession. I would even like to see my own name used to describe some rare form of congenital blindness or autoimmune diarrheal disease. But despite the temptation, I would never want to inflict my vanity on future generations of med students.

2 responses to “Eponyms

  1. I was pretty freaked out 30+ years ago when I was diagnosed with Grave’s disease. This auto-immune thyroid disease named after a Dr. Greves has not been as grave as the name sounded. I had radioactive iodine ablation of the thyroid and have been on thyroid replacement therapy for 30+ years. Maybe a name more descriptive would have saved me some anxiety back then.


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