Death of the eponym: Naming diseases after doctors is a practice in decline
Alzheimer. Parkinson. Hodgkin. The doctors themselves may have drifted into mainstream obscurity, but their names live on in medical textbooks, journals and obituaries around the world. Nevertheless, amid charges that medical eponyms are stodgy and outdated, there is a movement among modern doctors to eliminate eponyms from medical literature. But as doctors eschew the clunky and confusing names of the past in favour of more descriptive nomenclature, they may be taking some of medicine’s mystique with it.
There are definitely problems with eponyms. Look no further than Down syndrome. The 19th-century doctor John Langdon Down did not discover the famed genetic disorder, but he did assign it the name “mongolism.” In the 1960s, to purge medical journals of what was now an embarrassingly racist term (Down thought sufferers bore some resemblance to Mongols), researchers instead opted for an eponym — and falsely gave credit to Down. “It’s an example of everything that’s wrong with eponyms,” said Canadian medical historian Dr. Jacalyn Duffin. Doctors were trying to avoid a pejorative term and credit a founder, but they ended up doing “none of the above,” she says.