For a flight of fancy, try an eponym

MARK REEVES
Last updated 11:30 04/03/2014

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OPINION: I like eponyms. Believe me, right now some of my colleagues are either chuckling and/or tutting.

I still like them though, eponyms and my colleagues.

An eponym is a name for something, thought to be derived from the name of a person. Think leotard (named after Jules Leotard, the 19th-century French acrobat), or Ponzi scheme (named after the Italian-born US conman).

Medicine is full of them - eponyms, that is, not leotards and conmen, well not often anyway. Diseases, fractures, tests, signs, procedures and treatments; you name it, and there's a chance it's someone's name.

Who is not beguiled by the mellifluous de Clerambault syndrome (a delusion disorder in which the sufferer believes a stranger, usually famous, is in love with them), or marvel at the onomatopoeia of Heimlich manoeuvre (as Eddie Izzard points out, it is ironically difficult to say "Heimlich manoeuvre" when you're choking)?

Eponyms are not without their problems, and these days are regarded as somewhat old-fashioned and a bit shonky. I suspect referring to sarcoidosis as Besnier-Boeck-Schaumann disease will probably come across as a little bombastic, and eponyms are rightly criticised for other reasons.

They are not scientific, confer no information, and have a big geographical bias, most originating from western Europe. Often eponyms do not translate across cultures. Terry Thomas sign (an unusually large gap between the scaphoid and lunate bones in the wrist on X-ray) doesn't mean an awful lot to you unless you're able to picture the British comedy character actor Terry Thomas (he usually played the archetypal upper class cad or scoundrel in British movies of the 50s and 60s) with his signature gap between his upper central incisors (known as diastema).

Different countries sometimes have different eponyms for the same disease, and sometimes several eponyms refer to the same disease. Sometimes the same eponym is used for different diseases (I'm looking at you German ophthalmologist Erich Seidel; you know what you did). Are you confused yet? You can see why it pays to be at least a tad wary whenever an eponym is bandied around.

The use of capital letters for the adjectival form of eponyms is a bit of a minefield, and whether to use the genitive case or attributive position is a complete Pandora's box (enjoy the nerdgasm grammarians, the rest of us will google that last bit). When I was at medical school it was called Parkinson's disease, to some of the whippersnapper doctors coming through now it's Parkinson disease.

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Researching this article I read a paper published in 2001 by John H. Dirckx of the University of Dayton Ohio entitled (honestly) "The synthetic genitive in medical eponyms: Is it doomed to extinction?" It's available free online and I encourage you all to read it at least once; it's an absolute hoot.

In 1974, the United States National Institute of Health decided "the possessive form of an eponym should be discontinued, since the author neither had nor owned the disorder." This isn't entirely true as there are several diseases named after patients.

Christmas disease is named after Stephen Christmas, the young boy who in 1952 became the first person to be diagnosed with haemophilia B.

Lou Gehrig disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is named after the American baseball player who died of the disease in 1941 (which reminds me of that terrible joke: "Lou Gehrig died of Lou Gehrig disease. What are the odds of that?")

To be frank, the use of eponyms is a bit of a dog's breakfast, which to my mind makes them all the more beautiful.

Jacques Lisfranc de St Martin was an army surgeon in the Napoleonic Wars who tried using a stethoscope to diagnose fractures. He named (among other things) a characteristic foot fracture suffered by cavalry officers when they fell off their horses with one of their feet trapped in a stirrup. By all accounts he was a pretty nasty piece of work and nobody liked him very much.

The Jones foot fracture was first described by the British orthopaedic surgeon, Sir Robert Jones, who sustained this injury while dancing in 1902.

The Fregoli delusion (the delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise) is named after the Italian quick-change artist Leopoldo Fregoli.

He had to invite journalists backstage to watch him work while he was performing in London in the 1890s in order to quell rumours that there was more than one Fregoli performing the act.

Satchmo syndrome is a rupture of the obicularis ori muscle around the mouth of musicians who play wind instruments. It's named after the legendary jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong who had to stop playing for a whole year in 1935 probably because of this condition, and may be responsible for his nick name "Satchmo", short for satchel mouth.

You can't tell me these aren't enchanting stories which lend medicine a certain charm, and imbue it with a soulful humanity it would otherwise lack.

In 1980, Stephen Stigler, a Professor at Chicago University published "Stigler's Law of eponymy".

Stigler's Law states that "no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer". In his paper Stigler named the sociologist Robert K Merton as the original discoverer of Stigler's Law.

What's not to absolutely love about any of that?

Dr Mark Reeves is Senior Medical Officer, Nelson Emergency Department. The views are his own.

- The Marlborough Express

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