An eponym is a real or fictitious person’s name or a place name that has given rise to the name of a particular item. In medicine, eponyms are used to refer to diseases, anatomical structures, reflexes, concepts (such as grading systems) and more. While eponyms can reflect the place or person in which the thing was first identified, the use of eponyms is generally thought to honor the individual who discovered, provided the first clear description or otherwise illuminated the item to which their name is given. They help put things in historical context and can serve to inspire others to discover or invent. The biggest advantage of eponyms is that they can serve as a form of medical shorthand, conveying a complex concept or disease syndrome in one name, such as Cushing’s and Addison’s diseases. However, there are issues with eponyms that have caused debate over their use.
The problems with eponyms include the following:
- There are over 8000 eponyms in medicine. (Ferguson 2014, Whonamedit?) Learning and retaining all of them requires time and effort, which could arguably be better spent.
- Eponyms are often not defined consistently from reference to reference (Hofmeister 2022), which can lead to decreased accuracy, poor communication and misunderstandings.
- Different eponyms can be used regionally based on nationality of the different investigators who studied the same disease/phenomenon (Castillo Aleman 2021, Mora 2010)
- There is inconsistency in the use of possessive vs non-possessive forms of eponyms, complicating literature searches. (Jana 2009)
- In regard to the intent to stimulate passion for medical achievement and bestow honor, the vast majority of eponyms have been named for white men, (Ferguson 2014) leaving others without appropriate role models, and some eponyms are named after individuals with ethical issues that are inconsistent with an honorary eponym, such as those who participated in criminal experimentation on prisoners during World War II (Castillo Aleman 2021, Ferguson 2014, Mora 2010).
- The use of eponyms can affect objectivity. By associating a concept with an individual, when the idea is questioned or challenged by colleagues, it can appear to be a personal attack.
The debate over the use of eponyms has been going on for decades, (Hofmeister 2022) and a consensus has not been reached. Eponyms are entrenched in the medical literature. They give historical perspective, and the advantage of eponyms as medical shorthand is difficult to overcome. Thus, their use will likely continue; however, given the drawbacks listed above, minimizing their use is strongly encouraged. When possible, the use of scientific nomenclature or acronyms, that specifically and accurately convey the concept, is recommended.
The biggest problem with using eponyms for grading systems is the loss of objectivity. Eponyms can lead to adherence to a system due to institutional or personal loyalty. This loyalty can override objective evaluation of potential challenges or modifications to the system. It is also possible for animosity to develop between opposing schools of thought. It is therefore recommended, that for grading systems, the tumor type and year of publication be used instead of eponyms. If more than one grading system for a specific tumor is published in a given year, the addition of letters alphabetically to indicate sequential systems for that year is advised.
- Castillo Aleman YM: Medical eponyms: redeeming or not the long-standing tradition. Postgrad Med J. 2021;97;498-500.
- Ferguson RP, Thomas D: Medical eponyms. J Community Hosp Intern Med Perspect. 2014;4(3):25046.
- Hofmeister EN, Bren AM, Saalsaa H, et al: What’s in a name? Eponyms in medicine. Minnesota Med. 2022; Sept/Oct 18-19
- Jana N, Barik S, Arora N: Current use of medical eponyms – a need for global uniformity in scientific publications. BMC Med Res Methodology. 2009;9:18
- Mora B, Bosch X: Medical eponyms: Time for a name change. Arch Intern Med. 2010;170(16):1499-1500
- Whonamedit? – The dictionary of medical eponyms.