Internationally, the medical profession is moving away from naming diseases after their founder. In fact, in the last few years, many conditions have been stripped of their eponymous names and replaced with more descriptive terms, often describing the underlying pathological process. An example of this is the rebirth of Wegener’s granulomatosis as Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis. Just as sometimes the colonial name of Calcutta tipples of my tongue (instead if its rightful name of Kolkata), it can be hard to move away from an often used, familiar medical term. And diagnosing someone with Wegener’s seems much less of a mouthful than with granulomatosis with polyangiitis.

Other than the fact that using these eponymous names leads to dilemas revolving around whether or not the possessive form of the name should be used (Parkinson’s disease or Parkinson disease?), it can lead to other problems too.

In one of my first few months on a German ward, I was asked by a patient if it was possible that he may have `Pfeiffersches Drüsenfieber`? After asking him to repeat the name of this disease 3 times and still not knowing what it could possibly be, I found myself in the difficult position of having to admit to a patient that he had apparently located a (clearly large) gap in my medical knowledge. Checking up on it later though, I found out that this was the eponymous name for infectious mononucleosis, or glandular fever as commonly referred to in England. (Such a common disease, that you would be right to be worried if your doctor had never heard of it.) I had however simply never heard the term Pfeiffer’s disease, which is in honour of the German pediatrician, Emil Pfeiffer, who first reported clusters of the illness in 1889.

Another case which perplexed me was the disease referred to as Morbus Basedow by my colleagues. A condition I had never before heard of. Looking into the history books solves this conundrum. In Great Britain, this autoimmune disease of the thyroid gland is referred to as Grave’s disease after the Irishman Robert James Graves who described a swelling of the thyroid gland and the eyes in 1835. On the continent, the disease carries the name of the German Karl Adolph von Basedow who reported the typical symptoms in 1840.

Clearly the usage of these names reflects a certain sense of pride in each country’s own contribution to the medical field. Descriptive terms would in some cases make it much easier to learn and remember just what exactly the illness does, as well as crossing international borders with more ease. Saying that, a complete renaming of diseases would seem like an affront to the pioneers and discoverers over the centuries who have made the field of medicine what it is today. For this reason, I presume medical students will still be learning about Hashimoto, Huntington, Gilbert, Gaucher and Co. for quite a few years to come.