December 10, 2020 1:48 PM

What’s in a Disease Name?

New study finds medical namesakes are losing their prominence in neurology, replaced by increasing reliance on clear, descriptive labels.

blue ink drawing on lined paper of stethoscope

Lou Gehrig’s disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

Bell’s palsy or idiopathic facial paralysis?

Machado-Joseph disease or spinocerebellar ataxia type III?

A new study finds neurologists are starting to prefer the latter, descriptive option when referring to a disease as opposed to the version named after a person.

“In medicine we often use unnecessarily complicated language,” says lead author Christopher Becker, M.D., a resident physician in the Department of Neurology at Michigan Medicine. “Neurologists are particularly guilty of this, and eponyms are a great example. Our intuition was that the use of eponyms was decreasing, and that’s exactly what we found.”

Becker says neurologists may be more likely to use the descriptive names for conditions to eliminate confusion if one name is attached to multiple terms, and to reflect the collaborative nature of science and medicine.

“There’s a case to be made that using eponyms is a way to honor our forebears, but it turns out they are often named for the wrong person,” he says. “My favorite eponym is Stigler’s law, which states that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer - an idea Stigler himself attributes to sociologist Robert Merton.”

Becker used Google data to determine that use of neurological eponyms, or namesakes, in scientific publications increased during the 20th century but has sharply decreased in the last two decades.

Paper cited: “Declining use of neurological eponyms in cases where a non-eponymous alternative exists,” Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery. DOI: 10.1016/j.clineuro.2020.106367