Many disease names are in the possessive – they aren’t named ‘Rumplestiltskin’s Disease/Syndrome/XXXoma” etc.  They were all named after the first physician to have described the disease, with only the (informal but, in the US, widespread) exception of Lou Gehrig’s disease (for which, perhaps significantly, there seems to be no “doctor” equivalent – it is formally named after its process, as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in the US, or motor neurone disease, in the UK).

A few years ago some disease/patient advocacy groups began arguing that the possessive was inappropriate; the discovering doctors didn’t “own” the disease, which, if “owned” by anyone, should be claimed by its victims.  Some authors dropped the apostrophes, others didn’t.  (And I faced this question while writing my last post, on Alzheimer(‘)s disease.)  Medical journals seem not to have reached any consistent decision, across disease or within diseases.  A quick search of Pub Med for the titles of  all medical  articles in English in the last two years shows 681 with Alzheimer’s disease and 3903 with Alzheimer disease.  For the condition caused by having three copies of chromosome 21, however, 97 say Down’s syndrome and 678 say Down syndrome.

A sports message board I frequent allows people to post polls, letting readers choose from a multiple choice list and showing the results.  As far as I can tell, our software doesn’t allow that, but I am curious what our readers think.

Dropping the apostrophe from physician-based names for diseases is

a)  A small but useful step toward increasing respect for patient

b)  A really silly example of political correctness run amok

c)  So unimportant that I can’t activate enough neurons to answer

d)  What was the question again?

Let me know.

Hank Greely

9 Responses to Diseases and Apostrophes – A (Sort of) Poll
  1. In England they keep the apostrophe on DS, which may be the genesis of seeing some of them in pub med? Well that although with using outdated American English. Actually it is e) none of the above. It is more like proper grammar. These doctors discovered but do not own the disease. There is no apostrophe in MLK Drive or any other street or building named after a person.


  2. Personally, I miss “chorea” as in Huntington’s; and I rather enjoy the history implied (sometimes confusingly) by the names. But it seems that usage is evolving away from the apostrophe, just as many hyphens are melting away, and the old names may eventually go with them. So it goes.


  3. A close friend of mine was diagnosed earlier this year with a lymphoma, known either as lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma or as Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia, after the Swedish MD who first described it in 1944. I sent him this post and here’s the relevant part of his response:

    “Personally, I don’t care if there is an apostrophe or not. He may have identified it but I got it. Having his name on it doesn’t change the feeling that this is my condition. It just has a name, like bald . . . I also like having a human name attached to it,with or without the apostrophe. Makes it more memorable, less daunting than macroglobula anemia . . . I certainly don’t like a name like “Marrow killing wasting disease” or something equally gruesome. Since there are about a hundred types of lymphoma, or so I read, I like having one that is distinguishable.”

    I believe his overall answer is b, edging into c.


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  5. Brilliant! The war over the apostrophe in Down(‘s) syndrome is quite ludicrous and led me to investigate further. The Eponymous Case of the Missing Apostrophe or Do You Know Your Genitives from your Elbow:


  6. If the apostrophe is to show possession, it would come after the s, instead of before. If it’s before the s the would become the word is… Just saying.


    1. Hank’s brain doesn’t think that’s how the apostrophe and s work in English. My students’ brains may disagree.

  7. It always called my attention because I never saw which of the apostrophe rules apply in this case. However, I’m still confused. Apparently every one write it the way they prefer, so there are no rules.


  8. I have to say b) with a touch of c). As a person with a syndrome, I grew up hearing and saying Marfan’s syndrome. I still use the ‘s. It rather just irritates me that people can’t leave well enough alone.


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