Where do medical terms, disease names come from?

In the medical field, there are many terms and physical conditions that are named for people or trace their origins to Latin roots.

 A doctor is seen tending to a patient (Illustrative). (photo credit: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash)
A doctor is seen tending to a patient (Illustrative).
(photo credit: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash)

The islets of Langerhans. That sounds like an idyllic vacation destination in a far-off land where you can just languish and luxuriate. However, as exotic and remote as they may sound, the islets of Langerhans are a lot closer than you may think.

They are, in fact, pancreatic cells in the body that produce hormones such as insulin and glucagon that are secreted into the bloodstream. These hormones help control the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood. They are named for German physician Paul Langerhans, who first described them in 1869. 

In the medical field, there are many terms and physical conditions that are named for people or trace their origins to Latin roots. So let’s do a little check-up and examine where some of this familiar terminology stems from. 

All too familiar is Alzheimer’s disease. The most common type of dementia, it is a progressive disease that begins with mild memory loss and possibly leads to loss of the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to the environment. The disease involves parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language. It is named for Bavarian clinical psychiatrist and neuroanatomist Aloysius Alzheimer, who noted the disease process in a patient and reported about it at a meeting of psychiatrists in 1906. 

Another neurological condition is Parkinson’s disease. It is a brain disorder that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements, such as shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination. Symptoms usually begin gradually and worsen over time. As the disease progresses, people may have difficulty walking and talking. The condition is named for British doctor James Parkinson, who first described the shaking palsy in 1817. 

 A nurse prepares a booster dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against coronavirus (COVID-19).  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A nurse prepares a booster dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against coronavirus (COVID-19). (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism. Young people with this developmental disorder have a difficult time relating to others socially, and their behavior and thinking patterns can be rigid and repetitive. The condition was named for Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger (1906 -1980), who conducted pioneering studies of autism, specifically in children. 

Similarly, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is named for British pathologist Thomas Hodgkin (1798 – 1866). Down syndrome is named for British physician John Langdon Down (1828 –1896). And Crohn’s disease derives its name from Jewish gastroenterologist Burrill Bernard Crohn, who was born in New York City in 1884 and died in 1983 at age 99.

While these pioneers have been credited with identifying such diseases, tremendous credit goes to those who are attributed with making medical advancements and finding cures. 

The origins behind the names of medical advancements and cures

The Hippocratic Oath, one of the most widely known of Greek medical texts, is an oath of ethics taken by physicians. One of its mainstays is the pledge to “do no harm.” 

A major boon in the realm of cures was the Salk vaccine, which veritably eradicated polio. In the early 1950s, the first successful vaccine was created by Jewish American physician Jonas Salk. He tested the vaccine on himself and his family in 1953, and a year later it was administered to 1.6 million children in the US, Canada, and Finland. The results were announced on April 12, 1955, and Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) was licensed that same day. By 1957, annual cases dropped from 58,000 to 5,600; and by 1961 only 161 cases remained.

Another disease that seems to have been brought under control is COVID-19 (which is an acronym for coronavirus disease 2019). In Israel, we are very familiar with the Pfizer vaccine, which is purported to have helped many of us ward off the disease. The Pfizer pharmaceutical company was co-founded in 1849 by German-American businessman and chemist Charles Pfizer and his cousin Charles Erhart.

While we may not be nostalgic about our bout with the pandemic era, the word “nostalgia” has an interesting etymology. The word is a formation of a Greek compound, consisting of nostos, meaning “homecoming,” and álgos, meaning “pain” or “sorrow.” The term “nostalgia” was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. 

At the other end of the spectrum in regard to recall is the word “amnesia,” from the ancient Greek for “forgetfulness.” It is derived from the word a, meaning “without,” and mnesis, which means “memory.” 

Another term that has an interesting backstory is the word “mesmerize.” It means to hold the attention of (someone) to the exclusion of all else or to transfix them. The word comes from the name of 18th-century Jewish Austrian physician Franz Mesmer. He believed that all people and objects are pulled together by a strong magnetic force, which he called “animal magnetism.” It was later termed “mesmerism.” 

In the field of psychology, the name at the forefront is that of Jewish Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Based on his psychoanalytic theory, he introduced the id, the ego, and the superego, And we also have the Freudian slip. 

This is described as an error in speech, memory or physical action that occurs due to the interference of an unconscious subdued wish or internal train of thought. Classical examples involve slips of the tongue, but psychoanalytic theory also embraces misreadings, mishearings, mistypings, temporary forgettings, and the mislaying and losing of objects. 

To illustrate, I have the perfect example. When I got married many years ago, my mother took on the task of making a handwritten list of all the guests and the wedding gifts they presented. After all was said and done, as I looked over the completed list, I was fascinated by one of the entries. One of the gifts I had received was a piece of original artwork. In the space allocated for the gift, instead of writing “Painting,” my mother had written in very clear script “Painstaking.” 

To conclude this little romp in the field of medicine, I will end with a quote from the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, who was a doctor by profession. He said, if people knew how healthy flaxseed was for them, there would be no fields of it left in the world because everybody would have harvested them. Note: Flaxseed (pishtan in Hebrew) must be ground in order to deliver its benefits, as the body cannot absorb the shiny little seeds in their original form.

To your health! ■