About eponymy (Main page for Histological eponyms)
The practice of naming structures after researchers who discovered or described them did not become fashionable until the seventeenth century. A few anatomists commemorated with eponyms were born during the 1500s -- e.g., Falloppio [b. 1562] and Eustachi [b. 1574]. But even the great 16th century anatomist Vesalius [b. 1515] barely appears among eponyms (e.g., the os vesalianum).
Our chronology of histology begins with William Harvey [b. 1578], who listed several types of tissue and anticipated the existence of capillaries. But histological eponyms did not proliferate until after the advent of practical microscopes in the mid-seventeenth century.
Much more recently -- within this writer's lifetime -- eponyms have been falling out of fashion, succumbing to a preference for labels which are functionally or anatomically descriptive. For example, Malpighian corpuscles are now routinely called "renal corpuscles." Similarly, crypts of Lieberkuhn and islets of Langerhans are now commonly called "intestinal crypts" and "pancreatic islets."
This fashion for replacing eponymous labels offers some pedagogic advantage for learning the location and function of the eponymous structures, which I applaud. But unhappily this fashion carries with it diminishing awareness of pioneering work in microscopic anatomy.
Balancing the relative merits of commemorated history against those of descriptive anatomy is not the only concern raised by eponymy.
In the clinical arena, replacing certain eponyms with meaningfully-descriptive labels might help avoid occasions when confusion between similar-sounding eponyms might lead to misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment. Just such cases have indeed been reported (by Pritchard et al. in The Lancet, 2003, vol. 362, p. 299), when the name "Langhans cell" was conflated with the name "Langerhans cell."
In the ethical arena, an essay by Rachel E. Gross, "Should Medicine Still Bother With Eponyms?" (The New York Times, 19 June 2023) asks whether expunging eponyms commemorating Nazi-era doctors will lead physicians to forget lessons of the past: "some scholars contend that even 'canceled' eponyms have a place, as stark reminders of the ethical breaches medicine should never repeat." For a histological example, see here.
For discussion of other disadvantages associated with eponymy, see Buttner et al. (2003), "De-eponymising anatomical terminology."
Meanwhile, the persistence of eponyms in common usage provides a window into the historical development of histology as a discipline.
Main page for Histological eponyms
Additional eponym resources:
Comments and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Last updated: 14 July 2023 / dgk