Medical Eponyms: Recognizing the Medical Greats

June 11, 2014

By David Kudlowitz, MD

Peer Reviewed

Whether assessing for a Babinski[1] sign, listening to Korotkoff sounds, or diagnosing Wolf-Parkinson-White Syndrome, we are surrounded by names of the medical greats in day-to-day medical practice. Medical eponyms for diseases, physical exam signs, procedures, and anatomic parts are considered by many practitioners to be tributes to their physician discoverers. However, over the past several years there has been an increasing resistance to the excessive use of eponyms, especially those associated with Nazi physicians [i,ii]. A compilation of medical eponyms and their definitions found on the website whonamedit.com, currently contains around 7000 names [4] leading one commentator to coin the term eponymophilia [iii]. One quarter of these entries are from the United States and there is a bias against women, non-North Americans, and Europeans leading others to question their use [iv]. No matter where you stand on the use of eponyms, studying the history of our predecessors gives us insight into our medical culture. Here are several examples that explore the uniqueness of the eponymous nomenclature.

The Sausage Duel

Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) is one of the many physicians whose contributions to the field of medicine led to several eponyms. Just some of the terms carrying his namesake are Virchow Syndrome (a type of amyloid degeneration), Virchow node (left sided supraclavicular lymphadenopathy), and the Virchow triad (the factors that cause thrombosis). He was the first person to describe leukemic cells, recognized that all cells come from other cells, and published over 2000 titles [v,vi].

In addition to his contributions to medicine and pathology, he also was active in politics. Virchow served in the German Reichstag for 13 years where he promoted public health and disease prevention. As a leader of the liberal party, he also opposed conservative Minister President Otto von Bismarck’s2 excessive military funding. Bismarck was so irritated with Virchow that he challenged him to a duel. Per the code duello, as the “challenged man” of the duel, Virchow picked the weapons. He chose two pork sausages: one infected with Trichinella for Bismarck to use, and one cooked for himself. Bismarck, whose nickname was the Iron Chancellor, renounced his threat [vii].

A Bellevue Murmur

Most eponyms only use the surname of the honoree, however the Austin Flint murmur is an exception to this rule. Flint (1812-1886) was a founder of Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1861, where he taught for more than 20 years [viii, ix]. His methods concentrated on a prudent physical exam and differential diagnosis [x].

Flint is well known for the heart murmur that bears his name. The murmur is heard with aortic regurgitation, is mid-diastolic/pre-systolic, and is likely caused by the mixing of retrograde aortic flow and anterograde mitral flow on the anterior leaflet of the mitral valve. His description, published in 1862, while working at Bellevue, describes the murmur as follows:

“In some cases in which free aortic regurgitation exists, the left ventricle becoming filled before the auricles contract, the mitral curtains are floated out and the valve closed when the mitral current takes place, and, under the circumstance, the murmur may be produced by the current just named, although no mitral lesion exists.” [xi]

Interestingly enough, Flint was not a fan of eponyms. He stated, “So long as signs are determined from fancied analogies, and named from these or after the person who describes them, there cannot but be obscurity and confusion.” [xii]

Eponymous Patients

Perhaps the most famous case of a patient being named for a disease is the alternative term for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lou Gehrig, also known as the Iron Horse, is listed as number 11 on ESPN’s top 100 baseball players of all-time [xiii]. Before being stricken with the disease that bears his name, this Yankee great played 2,130 games in a row – a record that persisted until Cal Ripken surpassed it in 1995. While Lou Gehrig’s plight made others aware of the plight of ALS, the disease was actually first described by Charles Bell (among others) in the early 1800s [xiv]. Bell is also eponymized for another neurologic disorder, Bell’s Palsy.

Another example of a disease named after a patient is Hemophilia B (Factor IX deficiency), or Christmas disease. Not named for the holiday, it is in honor of Stephen Christmas, the first patient to be described with the disease. Stephen Christmas died in 1993 from HIV/AIDS that he received from a blood transfusion.

An Unfortunate Coincidence

The French physician, Armand Trousseau (1801-1867), was another prolific physician of his era. His name is associated with several eponyms, including Trousseau sign (spasm in hypocalcemia) and Trousseau spot (red streak from scratching the skin in meningitis). As the “physician-in-chief” of the Hotel Dieu in Paris, he published several lecture texts. One of these texts was entitled “Phlegmasia Alba Dolens.” In this lecture about painful white inflammation caused by venous thrombosis, Trousseau is the first to describe the hypercoaguable syndrome that bears his name [xv].

In an unfortunate twist of fate, a year and a half after delivering his lecture, Trousseau himself noticed swelling and erythema in his left arm, saying:

“I am lost: the phlebitis that has just appeared tonight leaves me no doubt about the nature of my illness.” [xvi]

He died of gastric cancer shortly after diagnosing himself with “Trousseau Syndrome.”

Politically Incorrect Eponyms

Down syndrome is named for British physician John Langdon Down (1828-1896). The first person to describe this disease was actually Jean Etienne Dominique Esquirol in 1838. When Down gave his more detailed description in 1866, he coined the term “Mongolism” [xvii]. Although now considered derogatory, in the context of Victorian England, his description was somewhat liberal. Down placed Caucasians on the same racial spectrum and from the same progenitor as Mongols. During his time, many were using the idea that ethnicities had separate ancestors to support theories of racial superiority [xviii].

“Mongolism” was the preferred term until the 1960s, when a Mongolian delegate at the World Health Organization requested it be changed and use slowly declined [xix]. It is interesting that Down not Dominique was honored with the eponymn, since Down’s colorful description gave birth to the controversial language. The French prefer the term “Trisomie 21.” It is possible that this is an honor to the Frenchmen Dominique Esquirol and Jerome Lejeune, the cytogeneticist who discovered the extra 21st chromosome in the late 1950s [xx].

The most controversial eponyms in use are those related to Nazi physicians. The two most notorious examples are Wegener and Reiter. Hans Reiter’s crimes as a Nazi physician include approving involuntary sterilization programs and authorizing infection of concentration camp prisoners with rickettsia [xxi]. Freiderich Wegener was a Lt. Colonel in the Nazi party (and joined before Hitler rose to power). He was wanted by Polish authorities for war crimes but was never tried. Complete details of his possible wrongdoings are not clear, but the evidence was enough for the American College of Chest Physicians to take away the “Master Clinician” award granted to Wegener [xxii]. For these reasons and others, the terminology Reiter syndrome and Wegener Granulomatosis have been replaced by Reactive Arthritis and Granulomatosis with polyangitis respectively.

Eponyms are prevalent in our medical and common languages. While some medical names are clinically illustrative (like Tetralogy of Fallot3), others are nonspecific (Paget disease4). Eponyms like sandwich5, America6, and Obamacare7 add a cultural flourish to our everyday language both inside and outside the hospital. Whether you are for or against their use in clinical medicine, there is no denying that eponyms provide a lens to both explore our past and shape our future.

Editor Comments

The failed quest for immortality has led many in search of ways of at least preserving their name unto posterity. The medical lexicon is replete with the names of long-dead physicians and patients honored for their contributions to a particular disease or physical finding. The corresponding review by David Kudlowitz provides a fascinating study of the stories and controversies behind some of the most recognizable medical eponyms.

There are many paths to eponymization. A 150-word letter to the editor by a Canadian physician inquiring if somebody could investigate further his observations of the association of gastrointestinal bleeding and aortic stenosis earned EC Heyde his eponym for the subsequently identified syndrome (1). The renowned electrocardiographer Leo Schamroth became eponymized for the clubbing of his own fingers he observed during a bout of endocarditis (2). However, some physicians may regret the association of their name to a particular disease or finding, as was the case with John Homans and his linkage to the maneuver to diagnose a DVT. He went as far to deny making the original description of the sign and was quoted as saying, “if you wanted to name a sign after me, why didn’t you pick a good one.” (3,4)

1. Heyde EC. Gastrointestinal Bleeding in Aortic Stenosis. NEJM 1958

2. Shamroth l. Personal experience. South Afr Med J. 1976; 50:297-300

3. Homans J. Venous thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. NEJM 1947

4. Barker WF. To the memory of John Homan, MD. Maj Probl Clin Surg 1966.

Dr. David Kudlowitz, Internal Medicine,  NYU Langone Medical Center

Peer reviewed by Michael Janjigian, MD, Medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Jozef Babinski)

References:

1 Per the AMA Manual of Style, all eponyms are used in their non-possessive forms (except for the commonly used Bell’s Palsy and Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

2 Bismarck is largely credited with unifying Germany. He has several places named after him, including the city of Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota.

3 Pulmonary stenosis, overriding aorta, ventricular septal defect, and right ventricular hypertrophy. Named for Étienne-Louis Arthur Fallot.

4 Named for Sir James Paget (1814-1899): Paget disease of bone, Paget disease of the breast, Paget Schroetter disease, Extramammary Paget disease (vulva or penis).

5 John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792)

6 Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512)

7 The Affordable Care Act

i. Matteson EL. All medical eponyms should be abandoned. La Presse Médicale. 2008:37(2):250–251. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18164176

ii. Wodywodt A and Matteson E. Should eponyms be abandoned? BMJ. 2007;335:424. http://www.bmj.com/content/335/7617/424?view=long&pmid=17762033

iii. Matteson EL and Woywodt A. Eponymophilia in rheumatology. Rheumatology. 2006;45(11):1328–1330. http://rheumatology.oxfordjournals.org.ezproxy.med.nyu.edu/content/45/11/1328

iv. Enersen D. Whonamedit? A dictionary of medical eponyms. 1994-2013 [cited 2013 8 Oct]. Available from: http://www.whonamedit.com

v. Scully C, Langdon J, Evans J. Marathon of eponyms: 22 Virchow node. Oral Diseases. 2011;18(1):107–108. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22181035

vi. Mukherjee, S. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. 1st edition. New York: Scribner; 2011. Pg 13-14.

vii. Schultz, MG. Photo quiz. Emerg Infect Dis Vol. 2008 Vol. 14 No. 9. [cited 2013 8 Oct]. Available from: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/14/9/08-6672_article.htm

viii. Bellevue Hospital Medical College: A Guide to the Records. NYU Medical Archives and Special Collections. [cited 2014 16 February 2014]. Available from: http://archives.med.nyu.edu/collections/bellevue-hospital-medical-college-guide-records

ix. Dr. Austin Flint, Physiologist, Dies. New York Times Archives. Published September 23, 1915. [cited 2014 16 February 2014]. Available from: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F60814F93A5C13738DDDAA0A94D1405B858DF1D3.

x. Mehta NJ, Mehta RN, Khan IA. Austin Flint: Clinician, Teacher, and Visionary. Texas Heart Institute Journal 2000;27:4:386-389. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11198312

xi. Flint A. On Cardiac Murmurs. 1862. Published in: The American Journal of Medical Sciences 1973;265:3:236-255. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4573729

xii. Landid HR, Austin F. His Contributions to the Art of Physical Diagnosis and the Study of Tuberculosis. Bull Johns Hopkins Hosp. 1912;23:182–6.

xiii. ESPN’s Hall of 100 – Ranking the al-time greatest MLB players. ESPN. [cited 2013 8 October 2013]. Available from: http://espn.go.com/mlb/feature/video/_/id/8652210/espn-hall-100-ranking-all-time-greatest-mlb-players

xiv. Turner MR, Swash M, Ebers GC. Lockhart Clarke’s contribution to the description of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Brain. 2010;133(11):3470-3479. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/133/11/3470.long

xv. Harris NL, McNeely WF, Shepard JO, Ebeling SH, Ellender SM, Peters CC. Case Records of the Massachusetts General Hospital. Case 31-2002. NEJM 2002;347:15:1187-1194. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMcpc020117

xvi. Khorana AA. Malignancy, thrombosis and Trousseau: the case for an eponym. Journal of Thrombosis and Haemostasis 2003;1:2463-2465. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1538-7836.2003.00501.x/abstract

xvii. Scully C, Langdon J, Evans J. Marathon of eponyms: 4 Down syndrome. Oral Diseases. 2009;15(6):434–436. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19702773

xviii. Scull A. Hysteria: The Biography. Chapter 9: Down’s Syndrome [Internet]. Oxford University Press. Published 2009 [Cited 2013 8 Oct]. Available from: http://fds.oup.com/www.oup.co.uk/pdf/0-19-924639-4.pdf

xix. Howard-Jones N. On the diagnostic term “Down’s disease”. Med Hist. 1979;23(1):102-104. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1082401/

xx. Lejeune J, Turpin R, Gautier M. Mongolism; a chromosomal disease (trisomy). Bull Acad Natl Med. 1959;143(11-12):256-65. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13662687

xxi. Woywodt A, Lefrak S, Matteson E. Tainted eponyms in medicine: the “Clara” cell joins the list. Eur Respir J 2010;36:706-708. http://www.alexander-woywodt.com/fileadmin/www.alexander-woywodt.com/papers/editorial_Clara.pdf

xxii. Rosen MJ. Dr. Friedrich Wegener and the ACCP, Revisited. Chest 2007; 132: 1723; discussion 1724. http://journal.publications.chestnet.org/article.aspx?articleID=1085613

 

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