Is Your Syndrome Named After a Nazi?

Many are probably unaware that their condition has a Nazi’s name attached to it

William Patrick Butler

Reiter’s syndrome, now known as inflammatory arthritis, was named after Hans Conrad Julius Reiter, a doctor who did his experiments at Buchenwald, a concentration camp where his experiments killed over 250 people. In 2009, his name was officially removed from the syndrome, but he’s not the only Nazi whose name lingers in medical jargon. Scientific American explains:

Since then, other medical eponyms tied to Nazi crimes have surfaced. The “Clara cell,” a type of cell lining the airways to the lungs, was named after Max Clara, an “active and outspoken Nazi“ who made his discovery using tissues from murdered Third Reich victims. Then there is Friedrich Wegner of the vessel disease “Wegener’s granulomatosis”: Wegener joined the brownshirts eight months before Hitler seized power, joined the Nazi party in 1933, worked in “close proximity to the genocide machinery in Lodz,” and was wanted as a war criminal.

Those aren’t the only ones. In fact, Wikipedia has an entire list of medical eponyms related to Nazis. Eppinger Frugoni syndrome has since been replaced with Portal vein thrombosis. Hallervorden-Spatz disease is now Pantothenate kinase-associated neurodegeneration. Seitlberger disease has become Infantile neuroaxonal dystrophy. Spatz-Stiefler reaction now goes by the name of Paralysis agitans reaction. And Van Bogaert-Scherer-Epstein Syndrome is commonly called Cerebrotendineous xanthomatosis.

The argument to strip the Nazi names from these syndromes goes like this:

Medicine is a moral enterprise. Physicians serve to promote the welfare of their patients. Hans Reiter was a Nazi war criminal responsible for heinous atrocities that violated the precepts of humanity, ethics, and professionalism. We see no acceptable rationale to preserve any professional memory of Reiter within our medical culture, except as a symbol of what our societal values obligate us to reject.

That was from the doctors who wrote the retraction for Reiter’s disease. Scientific American puts it this way:

So, here is my humble request to doctors: please introduce these terms without their Nazi affiliations. If a tainted term has had another one substituted, please, just use the newer term. You can mention its former name and reasons for discontinued use, so that students may still recognize it if others refer to it. But from there after, make the newer term the norm. The norms of language follow from how terms are introduced.

But changing terms is hard. Many are probably unaware of who these names were once attached to. Since 1977, when the Reiter name change campaign began, less than 50% of doctors have stopped using the term. Some argue that all eponyms should be abandoned. The BMJ writes:

Eponyms often provide a less than truthful account of how diseases were discovered and reflect influence, politics, language, habit, or even sheer luck rather than scientific achievement. Moreover, the continued use of tainted eponyms is inappropriate and will not be accepted by patients, relatives, or the public.

But everyone can admit that these names are often easier to remember than the long, medical word for the same thing. Change will be hard, and probably slow, but for human rights advocates, it’s important.

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