Dr. Hans Reiter achieved the one thing most likely to keep a physician’s name in textbooks forever: He got an illness named after him. While working as a medic in the German army in World War I, he once treated a case of simultaneous inflammation in the joints, eyes, and urethra. This became known as Reiter’s syndrome.
But after his death in 1969, Reiter was revealed to be a rather unsavory eponym: He was a Nazi—not just another physician caught up in a Germany’s troubled times and forced into the party, but an avowed supporter and leader of the regime. He rose to president of the Reich Health Office, where he championed eugenics. And he approved human experiments in concentration camps, including typhus inoculations at Buchenwald that killed 250 prisoners.
Several other Nazi eponyms have since come to light. Clara cells in the lungs, for example, are named after Max Clara, who made his very discovery on lung tissue taken from people executed by the Nazi regime. Doctors writing in the Israel Medical Association Journal have documented another half-dozen such names they suggest changing. For a profession whose members begin their careers with an oath to do no harm, such namesakes are especially problematic.
Over the past few decades, the medical community has been slowly wiping Reiter’s name from the books. The preferred term for the condition he studied is now “reactive arthritis.” In 2007, the doctor who first suggested the name “Reiter’s syndrome”—without knowing at the time about Reiter’s political activities—retracted the term in a letter published in Arthritis & Rheumatism. The renaming campaign had long been underway by then, and “Reiter’s syndrome” had already been falling out of favor since the late nineties. But as these things go, that was hardly the end.
There is no official protocol for changing an eponym; there’s only publishing the rationale for using a new name in a journal and convincing doctors to overcome the inertia of using the old name. Once terms are well-established in the medical community, it’s impractical to make them vanish right away. Even “Reiter’s syndrome,” the term most actively criticized, is still found in the titles of new case reports in 2013. Renaming is a slow, ungoverned process.
In arguing against medical terms named after Nazi doctors, some physicians questioned the use of eponyms at all. They can be useful shorthand, sure, but they lack the descriptiveness of names like “reactive arthritis.” More importantly, singling out one doctor glorifies the individual, ignoring the gradual and iterative nature of medicine. Arguing against eponyms in the British Medical Journal, Alexander Woywodt and Eric Matteson point out that that Behçet’s disease—an inflammation of the blood vessels—could more accurately be called “Hippocrates-Janin-Neumann-Reis-Bluthe-Gilbert-Planner-Remenovsky-Weve-Shigeta-Pils-Grütz-Carol-Ruys-Samek-Fischer-Walter-Roman-Kumer-Adamantiades-Dascalopoulos-Matras-Whitwell-Nishimura-Blobner-Weekers-Reginster-Knapp-Behçet’s disease” to account for the many researchers who helped contribute to understanding the condition.
The awarding of namesakes—the picking of one name out of that long list—is not always meritocratic either. Woywodt and Matteson write that luck, politics, and publishing in a more accessible language or journal bias the process. In fact, the syndrome Reiter described had been reported by others before, as early as the 1500s. The French also had a different term for it: Fiessinger-Leroy, named after two French doctors, a fact that irked Reiter. Back in 1916, he also incorrectly attributed the inflammation to parasites found in his patient’s stool. So, unlike his current infamy, even Reiter’s initial fame was arguably undeserved.
Sarah Zhang is a science journalist based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @sarahzhang.