history, medicine

The End of an Eponym

It’s interesting when medicine and history intersect (at least I think it’s interesting).  Here’s a quick history lesson that I recently encountered.

An eponym is a medical term named after a person.  Some of these are familiar to just about everyone.  For example, most people are familiar with Alzheimer’s disease and Down Syndrome.  Others are much less familiar, such as Castleman’s disease.  Eponyms are the bane of existence for many first year anatomy students- trying to remember where Hesselbach’s Triangle is, for example.

One fairly common eponymous disease is Reiter’s Syndrome.  I’ve seen it several times.  It is an arthritis that occurs in reaction to a bacterial infections, usually food poisoning or a sexually transmitted infection such as chlamydia.  As I’ve mentioned a few times recently, I’m in the process of studying for my internal medicine board recertification.  I recently completed the Rheumatology module.  When reading the section about Reiter’s Syndrome, I saw that it was always mentioned as “reactive seronegative arthritis, formerly known as Reiter’s Syndrome.”

I thought that was a bit weird.  Eponyms are annoying in that they are yet another term to memorize, but I’ve never seen one apparently being retracted.  About two seconds of Googling told me why.

Hans Conrad Reiter was a German physician born in 1881.  During his time in the army in World War I, he described a case of arthritis in a gentleman with a sexually transmitted infection.  This classic triad of arthritis, uveitis and non-gonococcal urethritis eventually became know as Reiter’s Syndrome.  Following the war, he became a professor in Berlin and was, by all accounts, quite a popular teacher.

However, there is a much darker side.  Reiter was a eugenicist.  He believed that certain people and races carried “inferior” genes, and the removal of these genes from society would create a stronger human race.  It’s not surprising that he became a vocal supporter of Adolf Hitler.  His support of Hitler led to a nice career trajectory.  Eventually, he became a member of the SS.

It gets worse.  He planned and carried out hideous experiments at Buchenwald, leading to the deaths of hundreds.  He sanctioned forced sterilization and euthanasia.  His own testimony at Nuremberg is damning, but he was not imprisoned, possibly in exchange for supplying the Allies with intelligence.  He died at the ripe old age of 88, living out the long, peaceful life that he had denied to so many others.

His war crimes started to come to light in 1977, and a campaign started to change the name from Reiter’s  Syndrome to reactive arthritis.  The wheels of the medical community turn at a glacial speed, however, and it took until 2009 for the name change to become official.

So, it’s the end of an eponym.  Eponyms are meant to honor- we need to make sure that those they honor are deserving of the accolades.



I’ve had a hard time watching the news about the Sandy Hook tragedy. I suspect many people have.  I have a son who is almost six, and it is literally sickening to think about losing him.  So, while on some level I am heartbroken about the loss of those innocent lives, on another level it’s just been too much to even contemplate.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday I got angry.

What finally did it?  It was this.

It’s the press conference given by the NRA executive vice president.  According to him, guns have nothing to do with the massacre at Sandy Hook.  Nothing.  It was video games.  And media glorification of violence.  And lazy law enforcement.  The solution?  More guns.  Got that?  More guns.  Guns for teachers.  Guns for “volunteer guards.”  Guns for the “good guys.”
I’m sorry.  That is sheer insanity.  It boggles my mind.  When a madman goes on a shooting rampage, the response should be, “How do we stop someone like this from ever getting a gun again?”  The response of the NRA was, “How do we get a gun for EVERYONE?”  
It ignores the fact that there was an armed guard at Columbine.  Virginia Tech had an armed security force.  Ft. Hood is a military base, for God’s sake.  Everyone is armed there.
We should have said “enough” after Columbine.  After Virginia Tech.  Ft. Hood.  Aurora.  We didn’t.
Now it’s time.
This is not the Wild, Wild West.  This is America in 2012.  There is no place, outside of the military and law enforcement, for assault rifles, automatic weapons, and extended ammunition clips.  There is no place for the lax, farcical “restrictions” placed on gun ownership.  And the day there are armed guards patrolling outside my kids’ school is the day I pull them out and start homeschooling them.  That is not the free country that I want my children to experience.  That’s a country under siege.
Will it be easy to make a change?  Of course not.  I’ve heard the statistics, just like everyone else.  There are 200 million guns in America.  It will take years, maybe decades to make a difference.  So why wait?  That just means that the time to start is now.  It’s not time to throw up your hands and say, “It’s impossible, so why even try?”
So, please, join me in saying, “Enough.”  Write to the President and your senators.  Write to your state reps and governors.  Don’t let a lobbying organization of 4.3 million gun owners speak for the needs and wants of 300 million people.