Diseases and Apostrophes – A (Sort of) Poll

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