Tuesday, August 21, 2018

What's Up with Eponyms in A&P? Part 2

In my previous article, I gave some reasons why in the Anatomy & Physiology textbook I avoid possessive form for all eponyms (which I lump together with toponyms) and avoid capitalizing eponyms in which the name is converted to a different form. For example, I use Henle loop instead of loop of Henle and I use eustachian tube instead of Eustachian tube.

Next, why are eponyms usually presented as only the secondary or alternate term? For example, why is the term preferred in the textbook pancreatic islets and not islets of Langerhans or Langerhans islets? It turns out that this is another contemporary trend that I agree with.

Eponyms can be problematic. As much as I love saying Islets of Langerhans out loud—and I truly do—the term does not tell anyone much about the actual structure. Okay, it tells me that they are small and isolated, which I get from the term islets. However, the eponym doesn't tell me where to find them. Or what they do. Or much of anything very useful. But pancreatic islets tells me much more about them. Not everything, of course—but such descriptive terms tell me much more than does the eponym islets of Langerhans. 


Another potential problem with eponyms has to do with the people themselves. For example, recent discussions of Hans Asperger have expressed concerns about a potentially complicated relationship with Nazi "race hygiene." Although named for him, the condition Asperger syndrome (AS) may have been first described nearly two decades earlier by a Russian woman working in the field of child psychology.

Besides that, the Asperger eponym has been dropped from the ICD (International Classification of Disease) and the DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in favor of a new range of conditions under the umbrella term autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In general, the ICD and DSM usually consider eponyms as secondary alternatives to "proper" disease terminology.

There are several issues at play with terms like the Asperger eponym. One is the fact that many (perhaps most) eponyms recognize the individual with the best awareness ratio, most aggressive supporters, and (probably mostly) lucky timing—not necessarily the person(s) most deserving of recognition. 

Another issue is the fact that we don't want to be reminded of Nazi ideology or atrocities when we are using scientific and medical terminology—nor are we anxious to honor individuals who may have used morally questionable methods or have other unsavory qualities.

Yet another potential issue with such eponyms is that they may reflect the dark underbelly of the history of science.
 Cross section of fallopian tube
Cross section of fallopian tube

For example, Asperger syndrome may have been first described by a woman—but the condition was named for a man. This case is probably more about luck of timing and particulars of awareness of the existing literature at a time when scientific reports were not as easily accessed across the globe as is the case nowadays. However, it can't be denied that most eponyms are named for men and that probably reflects the historical exclusion of women from science—and from scholarly endeavor in general.

A number of discussions have also questioned why many anatomical structures that are uniquely female are named with eponyms that honor men such as Fallopius, Bartholin, Skene, and so on.

Even though this my second consecutive article on the topic of eponyms, I'm still not finished! Stay tuned for Part 3 of my discussion...coming up in my next blog post. In that, I discuss the various lists of terminology and how we A&P teachers can best help our students deal with a changing terminology during this time of transition.

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