Feature Christmas 2014: On the Wards, in the Surgery

Medical eponyms: taxonomies, natural history, and the evidence

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g7586 (Published 16 December 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g7586
  1. Jeffrey K Aronson, honorary consultant physician
  1. 1Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, Oxford OX2 6GG, UK
  1. jeffrey.aronson{at}phc.ox.ac.uk
  • Accepted 1 December 2014

Jeffrey Aronson discovers that the golden age of the eponym was the 1950s, not the 19th century. He provides taxonomies and a natural history

Eponyms have been with us ever since Adam’s apple stuck in his throat,1 although Genesis neither specifies the fruit nor describes the supposed dysphagia.

In Greek, ἐπωνῠμία (epōnumia) meant a name reflecting an attribute―given name as nickname. Consider the House of Cadmus.2 Laius (“left-handed”) has his son Oedipus abandoned on a hillside, pinned through his ankles. Later, when they meet outside Thebes, Laius’s horses trample Oedipus’s feet. Either way Oedipus gets an oedematous foot (pous). And because he knows (oide) about feet, he answers the Sphinx’s riddle about what goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening.

By extension, the adjective epōnumos meant using names of persons (eponyms) or places (toponyms), real or fictional, to describe things. “Eponym” therefore belatedly entered English in the mid 19th century, designating both the namer and the named, making Laius and Oedipus even more complex.3

Some dislike eponyms. But their grasp of the relevant evidence may be tenuous. For example, in a tetchy little piece in the BMJ, Des Spence claimed that “eponymous medical syndromes and signs often [have] exotic connections to central Europe; …few [are] named after Smith, Jones, or Brown.”4 The evidence contradicts this. All the central European countries (including the Russian federation) listed in whonamedit.com together muster only 146 entries, while Stedman’s Medical Eponyms includes 111 entries containing Smith (75), Jones (18), or Brown(e) (18) (See the annotated bibliography on bmj.com.).

Even …

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