Bioethics Discussion Blog: A Disease Named After a Doctor: What’s in a Name?

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Disease Named After a Doctor: What’s in a Name?

Since the beginning of my medical career I have known about the rare blood vessel inflammatory disease called Wegener’s granulomatosis, named after Dr. Frederick Wegener, a German pathologist who first identified the disease. I also have long known about Reiter’s syndrome, a form of arthritis, named after Dr. Hans Conrad Reiter, who wrote about that disease. Years later, Dr. Reiter became a senior Nazi official with “a trail of war crimes”. Dr. Wegener had joined the Nazi party to become a high official and may have participated in experiments on concentration camp inmates.

In recent years, these doctors’ affiliation and participation in Nazi activities have become known as described in an article appearing today in the New York Times.

In view of what is now known about their participation in crimes during the Nazi era, there has been an attempt to remove their names from the diseases they described. Their names however have been solidly ingrained into the medical terminology and we use them regularly in medical student education and communication between physicians and also between doctors and patients. The ethical issue is whether it is ethically right to continue using their names applied to those diseases now that we suspect what crimes they committed. Or is it more useful to clarity in the practice of medicine to retain these classic names, representing simply the disease and not the person? ..Maurice.

6 Comments:

At Wednesday, January 23, 2008 5:57:00 AM, Blogger MY OWN WOMAN... said...

Dr. Bernstein, that's a tough one for me. After having been to the Holocaust museum and having been touched by what must have been the world's worst travisty of injustice and man's inhumanity to man, my gut says, "Yes, erradicate their names forever and give them credit for nothing."

But my mind says so many different things. Changing the names of diseases would illicit a whole series of "this used to be called this, but now it's called that because the guy who originally named it was a Nazi war criminal" which then brings the man once again to the forefront.

I don't know. Change the name, and bring up the history; don't change the name and give a criminal glory. Talk about an oxymoron!

I suppose the bottom line for me is this. Even in every evil person there is the capacity to do good. Hopefully, the good outweighs the evil more times than not. In some cases, when evil wins out more often, the world cries, but the benefit of his discovery may help even those whom he hated. THAT is justice!

 
At Wednesday, January 23, 2008 9:56:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

You have made a very good point regarding the teaching of the new name of a disease but still having to refer back to the old, long documented and used name and then having to explain the change. As long as the old name exists somewhere and has not been expunged from the literature (totally unlikely) the dilemma will remain. ..Maurice.

 
At Thursday, January 24, 2008 7:10:00 PM, Anonymous js md said...

Diseases are named after their discoverer to honor them. If they don't deserve any honor, then by all means change the name. Reiter's syndrome already has alternative names such as 'reactive arthritis.' It's not such a big deal just to drop the Reiter's or at the most put it in parentheses without further explanation being required.

 
At Thursday, January 24, 2008 7:18:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

js md, ..then "drop" it and don't put the name in parentheses since I would ask "Why is the name in parentheses?" and would expect an explanation. :-) ..Maurice.

 
At Tuesday, June 24, 2008 9:11:00 PM, Blogger Denise said...

Speaking of discoverer's names, has anyone ever heard of Maurice Charcoal Disease? This runs in my husbands family and he is becoming paralyzed, but we can find nothing on it to share with the doctors.

 
At Tuesday, June 24, 2008 9:50:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Denise, I am not familiar with a disease with the name you described. However, I think you are really writing about the neurologic disease named "Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease" and you can learn the details of the disease by going to this link to the website of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

As described at the site "Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) is one of the most common inherited neurological disorders, affecting approximately 1 in 2,500 people in the United States. The disease is named for the three physicians who first identified it in 1886 - Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Marie in Paris, France, and Howard Henry Tooth in Cambridge, England. CMT, also known as hereditary motor and sensory neuropathy (HMSN) or peroneal muscular atrophy, comprises a group of disorders that affect peripheral nerves. The peripheral nerves lie outside the brain and spinal cord and supply the muscles and sensory organs in the limbs. Disorders that affect the peripheral nerves are called peripheral neuropathies." ..Maurice.

 

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