Medical Eponyms: Legacy of the Anatomists

An eponym is a word derived from the name of a person, real or fictional. They can be found in every discipline of academia, but are particularly prevalent in medicine and physiology.

There are signs, reflexes, diseases, syndromes, medical instruments, and almost everything else you can think of, named after the discoverer, inventor, or someone else significant in the term’s development. Often the names become so associated with what they refer to that the historical figure is completely forgotten, even among those who use the term every day.

In light of that, let’s check out a few of the real people who have their legacy preserved in the parts of the body associated with their name -

Anatomical Eponyms -

Eustachian tube: Named after Bartolomeo Eustachi, a 16th-century Italian anatomist. Though very little is known about his life in general, he was physician to nobility and religious figures, and was unusually open (for the age) to new “innovative” ideas about anatomy not put forth by Galen, something his contemporaries actively fought. The Eustachian tube is a 3-4 cm canal that connects the middle ear to the nose, which maintains equal atmospheric pressure on either side of the eardrum. Admirer of Eustachi Antonio Maria Valsalva  first coined the term “Eustachian tube” around 100 years after Eustachi’s death.

Fallopian tubes: Named after Gabriele Falloppio, one of the most important anatomists of the 16th century, and a contemporary of other notables such as Eustachi and Vesalius. He corrected many of Vesalius’ mistakes in myology, and wrote some of the most detailed works on the inner ear and sexual organs to date. The Fallopian tubes are two fine ciliated tubules in females, leading from the ovaries to the uterus, which carry mature ova away from the ovary during ovulation.

Organ of Corti: Named after Alfonso Giacomo Gaspare Corti, an Italian anatomist who performed some of the first microscopic studies on mammalian hearing in the mid-19th century. His methods of preserving the cochlea were able to effectively allow him to discover some of the tiny mechanisms of hearing that hadn’t been previously understood. The organ of Corti is the organ in the inner ear that has the auditory sensory cells, or “hair cells” - those things your doctor warns you can’t re-grow if you listen to music too loudly!

Cowper’s Glands: Named after William Cowper, the late-17th-century English anatomist, who was the first to describe these glands. Though considered a great surgeon and anatomist in his own right, there was an unfortunate incident where he published several plates of Govard Bidloo’s musculature works under his own name (with no mention of Bidloo), and there was a very heated exchange between the two men and their supporters. The Cowper’s glands are small glands in the male, on either side of the prostate gland, and release pre-seminal fluid. This fluid neutralizes the acidic traces of urine in the urethra, which has the potential to kill the spermatozoa. 

Haversian Canal: Named after 17th-century (I sense a bit of a trend here…) English anatomist Clopton Havers. He was a physician with a keen interest in microscopy and bones, and was the first to document several unique substructures in both compact and spongy bone. The Haversian canals are small hollow canals that run within the longitudinal axis of compact bones, which generally contain one or two capillaries and a nerve. They deliver nutrients to the living bone cells.

Bundle of His: Named after Wilhelm His Jr., the late-19th-century Swiss cardiologist and anatomist. He practiced and taught medicine in Berlin, Germany, and only became a cardiologist later in life. His earlier work on diseases led to his name being  used as one of the eponyms for trench fever, which is a pretty horrendous disease of war. The bundle of His is also known as the atrioventricular (AV) bundle, and is a collection of cardiac muscle cells specialized for electrical conduction, essential for a rhythmic heartbeat.

Islets of Langerhans: Named after Paul Langerhans, a 19th-century German physiologist, pathologist, and biologist. He was the son of a physician and was keenly interested in anatomy from an early age, and many of his most important discoveries were before he turned 30. He was also keen on biology, and did work on the fauna of Syria and the surrounding areas. The islets of Langerhans are the regions of the pancreas that contain the endocrine cells. They’re most well-known for producing insulin.

Circle of Willis: Named after Thomas Willis, a 17th-century English physician and founding member of the Royal Society of London. He also belonged to the circles that the many notable contemporary Oxford scientists comprised. Though he had a very well-off medical practice, his association with the Oxford experimenters led to significant time spent in the dissection room and trading ideas. Willis wrote about rudimentary psychological principles, neurology, and the anatomy of the brain. The Circle of Willis is a circle of arteries at the base of the brain. It creates a level of redundancy for the brain’s blood supply, meaning that if one part of it gets blocked or narrowed, the brain can stay fully oxygenated by getting blood from another artery that connects to the Circle.

Of course, this is only a few of the many medical and anatomical eponyms out there, but they’re some of the ones you tend to hear about a lot but might not know the origin of.

Next time I’ll cover Purkinje fibers, the Node of Ranvier, the Loop of Henle, Malpighian bodies, Meissner's corpuscles, Volkmann’s canals, Sharpey’s fibers, and Herring bodies (which are not fish). 

Sources and Further Reading:

Who Named It?


What’s in a Name? The Eponymic Route to Immortality.

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