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An epidemic of disease names - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | Oct 19, 2022


As well as advancing research on many nasty diseases, these doctors also gave them their names. By Johnny Grimond

If this summer is to be like last summer, we are in for a show of sublime roses, some bearing women’s names that seem to me almost as romantic as their exquisite blooms and beguiling scents. I know nothing about the lives of Zéphirine Drouhin, Louise Odier, Félicité Parmentier and Mme Isaac Pereire, to mention just a few; only that they have given their names to roses. But that is enough for me.

I admit that not all are quite so sensuous, and that the high-street associations of Dorothy Perkins, for instance, bring an element of bathos to the romantic ensemble. Though prone to mildew, she – the rose – is lovely, which is why, in 1919, the company stole its name. But luckily there are plenty of others as well-known, including Mary, Queen of Scots, Anne Boleyn and even Lady Godiva, whose namesake is described in my catalogue as ‘blush white’ – possibly the only joke among the ramblers.

Whether blushing or boasting, who would not be flattered to be chosen to lend her name to a rose? However, it’s one thing to be immortalised as a flower, a ship, an island or even a distant planet; rather different if it’s a disease. Yet the need to identify illnesses by relatively simple, non-jargon terms has led to the widespread adoption of people’s names for medical purposes.

Syndromes from Aarskog-Scott to Zumbusch, diseases from Abercrombie to Zahorsky and symptoms from Aaron to Winterbottom all take their names from people. Their numbers run into the hundreds. And no embarrassment seems to be caused: indeed, those who provide these eponyms are said to be delighted.

Most of them are doctors of some kind, but not all. For example, Munchausen syndrome, the name for a disorder in which the patient suffers from a non-existent disease, has its origins in a fictional character, Baron Munchausen, noted for telling tall stories.

Another example is Giacomo Casanova. Besides a lot of children, he left behind the term Casanova fracture – often a feature of Don Juan syndrome – which is used to describe injuries acquired by falling clumsily from an upstairs window.

A type of motor neurone disease gets two other names from real people – one a patient and one a doctor. In America, it’s often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, after a famous baseball player whose career was cut short by it in 1939, when he was 36. In France, it’s known as maladie de Charcot, after Jean-Martin Charcot, the neurologist who, in 1874, coined the term amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, by which the affliction is also known.

It was Charcot who, sometime after 1865, proposed that the name of James Parkinson should be given to ‘shaking palsy’, which Parkinson had been the first to describe as a neurological syndrome about 50 years earlier. Charcot also proposed that similar recognition should be given to one of his pupils, Gilles de la Tourette, for his work on the maladie des tics, which was then named Tourette’s syndrome. Known sometimes as the ‘founder of modern neurology’, and less complimentarily as the ‘Napoleon of the neuroses’, Charcot was himself honoured in the creation of at least 15 medical eponyms.

Plenty of other diseases acquired their eponyms in the 18th, 19th and early-20th centuries. Bell’s palsy was one of five discoveries named after a Scottish surgeon, Charles Bell (1774-1842). Down syndrome got its name from an English doctor, John Down (1828-96), who first provided its classification. Huntington’s disease was a tribute to Charles Huntington, an American doctor, for work he did in 1872. And Alzheimer’s disease entered the medical lexicon in the early 1900s, soon after a German psychiatrist, Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915), had become the first to publish details of a case of ‘presenile dementia’.

However, the use of medical eponyms goes back much further than the 18th century. The word ‘claudication’, meaning limping, is sometimes said to derive from the Roman emperor Claudius, who had a pronounced limp. And the term Caesarean, as used in obstetrics, originated (in 1615) in reference to the delivery of Julius Caesar.

That section is a wonderful saver of lives, but I’d rather be a rose.