In a recent BMJ issue the topic of medical eponym use was raised once again. In an interesting format they had a head to head debate between those against eponyms and those for eponyms. The anti-eponym camp, represented by A Woywodt and rheumatologist E Matteson have some compelling and logical reasons to rid our literature of these anachronisms. Their first argument involves some eponyms well known to rheumatologists, Reiter and Wegener. Both it appears have some connection to Nazi Germany, Reiter more readily documented. Given this info, it's not hard to argue that maybe his name shouldn't be immortalized in our textbooks and jargon. Their second argument is that the eponyms often don't reflect the true nature of the discoveries. Wegener's roommate may have described Wegener's vasculitis before Wegener; Takayasu didn't realize that the disease named after him had a vascular component. Their last argument was against the idea that eponyms aid in memory and therefore facilitate learning. They counter this with the fact that there are 31 eponyms relating to the signs and symptoms of aortic regurgitation. Point taken, I can't remember any of them. Lastly they note that a disease may have a different eponym in different countries, a complication in our more globalized world.
The pro-eponym or at least not anti-eponym stance is held by Judith Whitworth. One of her arguments is simply the fatalistic idea that with nearly 8000 eponyms out there, eradication is nearly impossible. She also sees the random, idiosyncratic, quirky evolution of the eponyms as part of their charm. On a more practical level, what do you do with the tetralogy of Fallot, or Fanconi syndrome where the manifestations are many. In fact, by definition, all syndromes will have numerous symptoms and signs, often difficult to consolidate in one easy-to-use term. She also argues that once you start removing the names of a few unpleasant figures, you'll need some mechanism to judge all others. Just how bad is bad enough to be erased from our collective medical memory. This is, of course, not an argument for those who want to be rid of all eponyms, good people or bad. Lastly, and interestingly is the fact that we would then have to go beyond the borders of medicine and start to eliminate eponyms in other fields such as Boyle's law, Kelvin and Hertz.
Personally I tend to fall in the pro-eponym camp. Sure Reiter's has got to go, and it has been on the way out for several years. In part for political reasons and partly because reactive arthritis is easier to explain than incomplete Reiter's. When the full triad appears, however, it's still hard not to reach for Reiter's syndrome fix. But that's okay. That's how I think it should evolve, rather than by summary elimination.
Here in Quebec there is a interesting twist to the eponym topic. The province is largely french speaking but has separate english and french medical schools and hospitals. Different eponyms can be used in different parts of the city. Even more interesting are the peripheral centres around Montreal where english trained and french trained physicians practice side by side. Here they don't tend to mix the two eponyms, but one or the other tends to take over. Forrestier's is the only term used for D.I.S.H. in our hospital . A neurologist here uses Ekbom's syndrome for Restless Legs, but not the majority. Gougerot-Sjogren has been shortened to the english version, Sjogren, and occipital neuralgia is universally referred to as nevralgie d'Arnold, a term I never once heard during my English university training. Personally, while the first few months of transition from english to french were somewhat difficult, given the number of such eponym translations across specialties, it was nowhere near as difficult as picking up the hundreds of abbreviations used in hospital notes.