What’s in a name? I. Eponyms and a dark history

Ask people what they think of the use of eponyms in science and you will get a mixed response. In medicine, eponymously named syndromes, structures, processes and laws are everywhere, though there is much debate about whether they should be in routine use. Personally, I’m a big fan of eponyms – they may not be descriptive or informative as the proper terms they signify, but I think they have a certain appeal. There’s a lot of history to be unearthed when encountering an eponym for the first time, and it’s status as a tribute to the discoverer/inventor is so … wonderful!

That being said, there’s a dark side to eponyms as well, one that I recently encountered after attending a tutorial (part of the MSc Internal Medicine program) at the University of Edinburgh. The topic was sexually transmitted disease, and a syndrome known as reactive arthritis came up. This disease, which describes urethritis, conjunctivitis and arthrits, is eponymously named ‘Reiter’s syndrome’ (the eponym was not used during the tutorial, and I had wondered why not). Now, I had heard this eponym being used very often during medical school, more often in fact than the proper term for the condition, but I had never known who Reiter was. So, after the end of the tutorial I did some digging and found out that the disease was named after Hans Reiter, a German doctor who was a member of the Nazi party and was convicted of war crimes for experimenting on people in concentration camps. Apparently, over the past decade the term Reiter syndrome has fallen out of favor within the medical community, and many people who generally oppose the use of eponyms are using it as an example of why they should be abandoned. Moreover, there are several other medical eponyms with similar Nazi histories, including the Clara cell and Wegener’s granulomatosis. There has been considerable effort so far to replace the use of these terms with other, more informative titles. What this means for the future of eponyms in medicine is not yet known.

On a side note: Living in Germany, it’s interesting to observe how people react to the country’s complex and distressing past. The Charité, the main university hospital and medical school in Berlin, was once home to many convicted Nazi physicians. I’m not sure whether similar eponyms are used here for the mentioned structures and diseases, but it would be interesting to find out.

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