Medical matters confuse me. Among the most confusing are diseases with patients’ or doctors’ names. I didn’t know what to think when neurologists said that Lou Gehrig might not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease. I thought the disease belonged to him. Apparently it didn’t. It may belong to someone else. I don’t know who. I don’t even know whom.
Maybe only medical names should identify diseases. It would be less confusing. The medical name for Lou Gehrig’s disease is – or maybe it isn’t – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Although the name is difficult to pronounce and remember, we’re not likely to confuse it with anyone. I’ve certainly never heard of anyone named amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I’ve never even heard of anyone named ALS, the common abbreviation.
Baseball enthusiasts should be relieved if it turns out that doctors misdiagnosed Lou Gehrig and we no longer name ALS after him. When his name comes up, many of us think only of his disease. What we should think of is his stellar career with the New York Yankees. A first baseman, he is chiefly known, or not known, for his prowess as a hitter and the number of consecutive games he played.
Why, he was almost as great as the legendary Babe Ruth. Imagine, if you can, that doctors had named nasopharyngeal carcinoma Babe Ruth’s disease. No, don’t imagine it. It’s too dreadful. If his name came up, many of us would think of the tumour that darkened his life rather than the baseball stardom and charisma that brightened it.
Fortunately, few diseases carry the names of patients who contracted them. Unfortunately, many carry the names of doctors who discovered or first described them. Do the doctors protest? On the contrary, they’re proud of being singled out. Incredibly, they like it when dreaded diseases sully their names. They like it so much they have to be reminded that it’s bad form if they try to do the sullying themselves. They have to wait until the proper authorities do it for them.
If the authorities, proper or otherwise, gave my name to a disease, I’d sue them. Having a disease named after me would tarnish my reputation. Having me named after a disease, as many might think happened, would ruin it. I value my name. I used to think doctors valued theirs. Of all people, you would expect doctors to keep their names disease free. I can’t imagine anyone willingly seeking treatment from a doctor with a diseased name.
Grammar adds to the confusion. Consider, for example, the dementia that Dr. Alois Alzheimer first described. In some jurisdictions, it’s Alzheimer’s disease. The doctor’s name is a proper noun with an apostrophe s indicating possession. In other jurisdictions, it’s Alzheimer disease. The doctor’s name is an improper adjective indicating qualification. We’re not sure whether Dr. Alzheimer owns the disease or merely modifies it. Nor do we know which he prefers, as he died without saying, but not from the malady that made him infamous.
Like other doctors with diseases named after them, Alzheimer seems to have taken pride in the attribution. He may have considered it an honour and wore it as a title. Doctors like titles. As soon as they get their undergraduate medical degrees, they address each other as doctor and expect the rest of us to do the same. For the most part, we defer to them without protest. Instead of Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., or what have you, we address them by their profession. We do the same with jurists, prelates and high political office holders.
We don’t do it with members of most other professions and trades. If we see news happening, we don’t call up Journalist Smith. If the sewer backs up, we don’t consult Plumber Jones. If we need to report our income, we don’t seek help from Accountant Brown.
We address invitations to Dr. and Mrs. Casper Nobody. We don’t address them to Pitcher and Mrs. Dexter Somebody or Shortstop and Mrs. Felix Anybody.
I guess it’s understandable that we set doctors apart. Medicine is a matter of life and death, and doctors are licensed to practice it. I know, because several have practiced it on me, and some got quite good at it.
When they practice life, we shouldn’t mind calling them doctor. When they practice death, we should call them something else. We might address their invitations to Abortionist and Mrs. Casper Nobody or Euthanasiast and Mrs. Dexter Somebody or, inclusively, Death Trade Worker and Mrs. Felix Anybody.
Talk about diseased names.