When French neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette discovered a medical condition in 1885 characterized by involuntary verbal and motor tics, he likely had no idea his name would soon be synonymous with the condition. Yet today, this rather common syndrome is known as Tourette's [source: NINDS].
Hundreds of illnesses, syndromes and diseases are named after the people who discovered them. These eponyms include Crohn's disease, Kaposi's sarcoma and Hodgkin's disease, to name a few. Today, however, the World Health Organization wants to end the practice of naming medical conditions after people (and also animals and places). The reason? The group often receives complaints from those who feel stigmatized when a disease is named after them or something they hold dear, or who suffer economic losses as a result. To wit: The swine flu isn't actually transmitted by pigs, but after an outbreak in 2009, some countries banned pork imports. After the Norovirus genus was named, a Japanese individual complained because "Noro" is a common surname in Japan [source: Kupferschmidt].
Others respond that naming a disease after a person or place makes it more memorable and descriptive than blandly giving it a technical moniker. Also, using a person's name is often a good way of paying tribute to the doctor or scientist who may have been the first person to discover the disease. Let's look at the stories behind 10 diseases named after people.
Parkinson's disease has been known since ancient times, when it was dubbed Kampavata in Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing used in India. In the western world, it was called "shaking palsy" in medical literature as far back as 175 C.E. But it wasn't until 1817 that the condition achieved some real attention. That year, James Parkinson, a physician from London, published "An Essay on the Shaking Palsy." Parkinson hoped his essay would spur others to study this condition, which greatly intrigued him after he noticed six cases both in his practice and around his neighborhood. Some 60 years later, French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot took up the challenge and began studying its symptoms and differentiating them from multiple sclerosis (another disease that Charcot was instrumental in identifying). It was Charcot who named the disease Parkinson's [source: Parkinson's].
Parkinson's is characterized by tremors; stiffness and slowness of movement and speech; changes in writing; and impaired posture and balance. It tends to strike those who are older, and while no one knows what causes it, scientists do know a big part of the problem is a dopamine deficiency in the brain. Low levels of dopamine cause certain nerve cells in the brain to deteriorate. Parkinson's isn't a fatal disease, and typically progresses slowly. But complications from the disease can be serious — difficulty in swallowing and frequent falls — which is why complications from Parkinson's is the 14th leading cause of death in the U.S. [sources: Parkinson's, Mayo Clinic, National Parkinson Foundation].
Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS)
The French neurologist who discovered Parkinson's disease was also the person who discovered ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, or motor-neuron disease. It is a progressive, degenerative neurological disorder in which some of the brain's nerve cells gradually deteriorate. The affected nerve cells are the ones that control swallowing and breathing, as well as movement in your limbs. So as the disease progresses, you lose the ability to move, speak, eat and, eventually, breathe. Sadly, the affliction is 100 percent fatal — you generally die a mere two to five years after being diagnosed. There is little to no pain with the disease, however, and your senses and thinking are left intact. In the U.S., about 5,000 people annually are given this diagnosis. The well-known ALS ice bucket challenge raises millions for research [sources: ALS Association, Web MD].
The disease was first discovered in 1869 by Jean-Martin Charcot. But it was little known until it hit baseball star Lou Gehrig in 1939. Gehrig was just 35 years old at the time and at the peak of his career. After the news leaked, he gave a farewell speech to fans on July 4, 1939 in which he called himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" for having a wonderful family, and having been able to play pro ball. Two years later, he was gone. After his death, the disease quickly became known as Lou Gehrig's disease — at least among Americans — and knowledge of the illness soared. Today, perhaps because Gehrig is long gone, Lou Gehrig's disease is more commonly known as ALS [sources: Lou Gehrig, National Baseball Hall of Fame].
Sir James Paget is a bit of an anomaly in the world of disease-based eponyms, as he has several bearing his name. Born in England in 1814, Paget was a surgeon and pathologist who never went to university. Instead, he trained at a hospital, as was common at the time. Considered the father of British pathology, he's famed for his accurate descriptions of numerous diseases, including osteitis deformans, a condition characterized by bone tumors (Paget's disease of the bone); a rare breast cancer that manifests itself in and around the nipple (Paget's disease of the nipple); a rare cancer characterized by lesions on extramammary sites such as the penis and vulva (Paget's disease of the penis, aka extramammary Paget's disease); and median nerve compression (carpal tunnel syndrome) [sources: Buchanan, Breast Cancer]. These diseases are not related — Paget just happens to have discovered them all.
While these are certainly impressive accomplishments, it's perhaps just as significant that Paget was a supporter of incorporating science into medicine, favored women becoming physicians and was open-minded about investigating new medical treatments. He's also recognized as the first surgeon to try alleviating bed sores through the use of water beds. James Paget University Hospitals in Norfolk, England, is named after him [source: James Paget University Hospitals].
Sometimes, a disease named after a person has to be renamed because disturbing information later comes to light. One such case is Friedrich Wegener, a celebrated German pathologist. Working off of a description of a rare disorder first described by a German medical student in 1931, Wegener wrote about three additional cases and figured out that they were all the same distinct form of vasculitis, which is an inflammation of the blood vessels. Eventually this disease became known as Wegener's granulomatosis [source: The Johns Hopkins Vasculitis Center].
Wegener's, which typically strikes people in middle age, can affect any area of the body, although it tends to be found in the kidneys, lungs and upper respiratory tract. Symptoms are wide ranging and can include frequent sinus infections, ear infections that are slow to clear, a collapsed nose bridge due to cartilage inflammation and kidney inflammation that can lead to renal failure. Wegener's was almost always a fatal condition until the 1970s, when new pharmaceutical treatments changed it into a chronic condition [source: The Johns Hopkins Vasculitis Center].
In 2011, Mayo Clinic rheumatologist Eric Matteson was researching an article on Wegener and discovered he had a sordid past. Wegener had been a member of the Nazi Party and the Sturmabteilung (the "brown shirts"), a paramilitary organization that terrorized opponents of Hitler. Wegener had also worked in an office in Lodz, Poland, where medical experiments were conducted on Jewish and gypsy prisoners held in the nearby ghetto. Matteson successfully pushed three medical societies to rename Wegener's granulomatosis as "granulomatosis with polyangiitis (Wegener's)"; eventually the societies plan to simply call the disease "granulomatosis with polyangiitis" [source: Benson].
Although this disease is known around the world, the doctor who named it spent most of his life in a family practice rather than at a research university. Hakaru Hashimoto was born in 1881 into a Japanese family that had been involved in the medical field for generations. In the early 20th century, he became fascinated with the thyroid gland. At just 31 years of age, he published a paper on a new thyroid condition he discovered in women with goiters that he named struma lymphomatosa. Although he had a promising academic career before him, Hashimoto returned home at 35 and took over the family medical practice to help out his relatives [source: Healio].
The thyroid condition Hashimoto discovered is a slowly progressing autoimmune disease in which leukocytes —and mainly T-lymphocytes, the white blood cells in your body that hone in on cellular abnormalities and infection — attack the thyroid. It is the main cause of hypothyroidism, which is an underactive thyroid. Symptoms include fatigue, a goiter, dry skin, a hoarse voice and unexplained weight gain [sources: Healio, Mayo Clinic].
Unfortunately for Hashimoto, he received almost no recognition for discovering this disease before his untimely death in 1934, due to typhoid fever contracted during a house call. Shortly afterward, the medical condition became known as Hashimoto's disease in much of the world, although Japan wouldn't learn of the moniker until the 1950s. His picture is now the logo of the Japan Thyroid Association [source: Healio].
In 1835, Irish doctor Robert J. Graves noticed an autoimmune disease in a patient that was characterized by a goiter (enlarged thyroid). He quickly wrote up a first description of it, and the condition became known as Graves' disease. Graves was talented in painting and linguistics as well as in medicine — he was once arrested as a German spy in Austria on the grounds that no "Englishman" could speak German that well. Graves also introduced his contemporaries to the ideas of timing a pulse with a watch and offering food and drink to people with fevers, not withholding it as was the common practice at the time [sources: Toft, Encyclopaedia Brittanica].
Five years after Graves' discovery, German Karl Adolph van Basedow also observed hyperthyroidism in a patient and subsequently wrote up a description of it, unaware of Graves' work. Continental Europeans tend to refer to the disease as Basedow's disease while Americans and Brits call it Graves' disease [sources: Toft].
Graves' disease occurs when the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone. It's also informally termed an overactive thyroid. Like many autoimmune diseases, it strikes women more often than men. Graves' disease also appears to be genetic, as it tends to run in families. Early signs of Graves' include weight loss, anxiety, chest palpitations, sweating, bulging eyes and a goiter. If the goiter gets very large, it can be visible as a swollen neck, and cause swallowing problems and sleep disturbances [source: Toft].
Here's a case where the person the disease is named after thoroughly deserves it. Carrión's disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by sand flies, has plagued Peru for more than 1,000 years, as well as parts of Colombia and Ecuador. Recognized several centuries back, it causes two distinct phases of illness in people. During the first stage, called Oroya fever, patients develop an elevated temperature, severe anemia and a temporarily suppressed immune system. In the second, eruptive stage, they develop "Peruvian warts," or skin lesions. Today, patients respond well to antibiotics [sources: Maguina, Spach].
The disease was originally called bartonellosis because the offending organism that causes it is Bartonella bacilliformis. The name "Carrión's" comes from Daniel Carrión, a 19th-century Peruvian medical student. Back when Carrión was studying, the medical community wasn't sure whether the same organism was behind both Oroya fever and Peruvian warts. So Carrión — apparently eager to make his mark in the medical world — inoculated himself with infectious matter from someone's Peruvian wart as an experiment. A few weeks later he developed symptoms of Oroya fever, which proved the same organism caused both phases of the illness. Unfortunately, he died from the disease two months later. The illness was subsequently renamed Carrión's disease to honor Carrión for giving his life for science [source: Spach].
Most people today know someone with Alzheimer's disease. That's not too surprising, since more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Hauntingly, one American develops the disease every 66 seconds [source: Alzheimer's Association].
Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that attacks the brain, causing problems with memory, thinking and behaviors. The most common form of dementia, patients typically develop the disease when they're 65 or older, and it progresses slowly and steadily over a period of about four to 20 years. Some people develop early-onset Alzheimer's, which strikes people in their 40s and 50s. There's no cure for Alzheimer's, although there are medications to treat its symptoms [source: Alzheimer's Association].
Alzheimer's was recognized as the most common form of dementia in 1976, although the biggest boost in its awareness and visibility probably came in 1994, when former U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced he had been diagnosed with the disease. Alzheimer's was first described back in 1906 by Aloysius "Alois" Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist known for his skill in linking various symptoms with microscopic changes in the brain.
Alzheimer had a patient, a woman in her 50s, whom he described as Auguste D., with severe memory loss and paranoid suspicions about her family. After her death, an autopsy showed her brain had shrunk significantly, and she had strange plaque deposits in and around her nerve cells. These symptoms had previously only been seen in the elderly. Alzheimer died in 1915, not knowing how widespread his discovery would become [sources: Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's Disease International].
A.G. Maurice Raynaud always wanted to work at a hospital in Paris. Although he obtained a medical degree in 1862 and his uncle was a well-known Parisian physician, Raynaud never achieved his dream of securing a hospital position. Instead, he lectured at universities. But one day he discovered a disorder affecting the blood vessels later named in his honor — Raynaud's syndrome, or Raynaud's phenomenon [source: Biography Center].
Raynaud's is characterized by blood vessels that constrict so tightly and rapidly, circulation is cut off. This usually happens when the person feels cold or stressed and the disorder cuts off circulation to the fingers, toes, ears and tip of the nose. Most people develop the condition when they are 15 to 25 years old, and women living in cold climates are particularly susceptible. It also appears to run in families. During an attack, the affected body part(s) often turn white and become numb. They may also turn blue, a sign of low circulation. As the area warms up and blood flow returns, the area may become crimson and tingle and throb [source: NIAMSD].
Most people self-diagnose Raynaud's and don't seek treatment. To thwart or limit attacks they keep their hands and feet warm and dry, avoid air conditioning, wear gloves when touching frozen items and use chemical hand- or foot-warmers in boots and mittens. But in severe cases (secondary Raynaud's), which often occurs in people with other conditions such as lupus or scleroderma, the disease is so severe it causes ulcers, and may even result in amputation. In extreme cases, people may take medications to improve blood flow to the fingers and toes. An estimated 28 million Americans have Raynaud's [sources: NIAMSD, Raynaud's Association, National Institutes of Health].
Unlike the previous conditions, Munchausen syndrome isn't named after the physician who first described it, or a famous person who suffered from it. Instead, the name comes from one Baron Karl Friederich von Munchausen, an 18th-century German military man who was famous (or infamous) for his rather tall tales. The condition was first referred to as "Munchausen syndrome" in a 1951 article in the British medical Journal "The Lancet," written by English physician Richard Asher, though the syndrome was first discovered by French physician Henry Miege in 1893. Miege was a student of our old friend Jean-Martin Charcot and wrote his thesis on patients with the condition. However it was Asher's article that brought Munchausen's to national attention and prompted other doctors to respond that they too had seen patients with this illness [sources: Ford-Martin, MedicineNet].
Munchausen syndrome and its variation, Munchausen by proxy (MSBP), are both rare, but chilling, psychiatric disorders. People with Munchausen syndrome intentionally injure themselves or fake symptoms of an illness so that they will receive medical care or be hospitalized. MSBP is worse because the individual — usually a mother — purposely injures her own child or someone in her care, or exaggerates an illness, so that the person will receive medical attention or be hospitalized. People with MSBP have poisoned or suffocated their own children, or placed bacteria in their open wounds [source: Ford-Martin].
People with Munchausen syndrome appear to have a need for attention, suffering and dependency. Perhaps not surprisingly, Munchausen patients are often well-versed in medicine and medical conditions. Some are even in the profession. There isn't a treatment, though psychotherapy has helped some people [source: Ford-Martin].
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Author's Note: 10 Diseases Named After People:
I'm one of the 28 million Americans with Raynaud's Syndrome. I fit all the criteria: I'm a woman. I live in a cold climate. My mother and one sister also have it. The disease is worst in my fingers, although it also strikes my toes. I've learned to stash chemical hand warmers in the pockets of every coat, in my purse, in our cars, etc.
When I'm having an attack, blowing on my fingers or sitting on them doesn't help. Neither does rubbing them together. One of the only ways I know to warm them back up is to place them in hot water. This past winter, I discovered that if I turn the heat up in the car to the highest setting (80-some degrees), then set the fan on high and stick my fingers into the vents as far as I can, that helps the blood flow return, too. Probably the worst place to go is the grocery store. In the summer, if I'm wearing sandals, the air conditioning causes an attack in my toes. In the winter, even though I keep my gloves on as I shop, I always get an attack from touching the metal handle of the shopping cart, which is cold from being outside. While this disease is annoying and can be quite painful at times, I'd rather have Raynaud's than any other disease on this list!
More Great Links
- ALS Association. "What Is ALS?" (July 11, 2016) http://www.alsa.org/about-als/what-is-als.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/
- Alzheimer's Association. "2016 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures." (July 21, 2016) http://www.alz.org/facts/
- Alzheimer's Association. "Major Milestones in Alzheimer's and Brain Research." (July 21, 2016) http://www.alz.org/research/science/major_milestones_in_alzheimers.asp
- Alzheimer's Association. "What Is Alzheimer's?" (July 21, 2016) http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_what_is_alzheimers.asp
- Benson, Lorna. "Mayo doctor helped spearhead name change for disorder with Nazi namesake." MPR News. May 18, 2011. (July 11, 2016) http://www.mprnews.org/story/2011/05/18/nazi-named-disorder-name-change
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- James Paget University Hospitals. "Who was Sir James Paget?" (July 11, 2016) http://www.jpaget.nhs.uk/about-us/who-was-sir-james-paget/
- Kupferschmidt, Kai. "Discovered a disease? WHO has new rules for avoiding offensive names." Science. May 11, 2015. (July 22, 2016) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/05/discovered-disease-who-has-new-rules-avoiding-offensive-names
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- Mayo Clinic. "Parkinson's disease: Symptoms." July 7, 2015. (July 12, 2016) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/parkinsons-disease/basics/symptoms/con-20028488
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- National Baseball Hall of Fame. "Luckiest Man." (Aug. 10, 2016) http://baseballhall.org/discover/lou-gehrig-luckiest-man
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- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Tourette Syndrome Fact Sheet." January 2012. (July 22, 2016) http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/tourette/detail_tourette.htm
- National Institutes of Health. "How Is Raynaud's Treated?" March 21, 2014. (Aug. 10, 2016) https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/raynaud/treatment
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