Most people don’t know what an eponym is and even fewer are familiar with how they represent the colonialization of anatomical terminology. Dr. Kristin Small and a number of Australian medical professionals would like to change that.
Small is a gynecologist, obstetrician and anatomy professor from Queensland, Australia. She’s one of a number of doctors down under who wants to rename a whole host of body parts because of the fact that they were named after people — namely dead men.
“I think we have a personal choice to decolonize our language and these historical terms will fade out,” Small said, the U.K. Daily Mail reported Sunday.
These body parts are known as eponyms. The most obvious of these is the Adam’s apple, named after the first man because of his unwise choice in fruit selection.
That’s just one of many body parts Small describes as carrying the “dead man’s name.”
In her role as lecturer, she’s been teaching her “students to phase out irrelevant and misogynistic medical language,” according to the Daily Mail.
“Eponyms are parts of the body that are named after a person, yet women are not represented in most of the 700 parts of the body named after people,” the Daily Mail reported.
Some of these include the Achilles tendon, Eustachian tubes, pouch of Douglas, Fallopian tubes and Montgomery glands.
And it’s not just the body parts. The tools of the trade can also be named after white males, too! Including very problematic ones.
For instance, take the speculum, a piece of equipment used by gynecologists during pap smears. It was invented and named by J. Marion Sims, a pioneering doctor known as the “founder of gynecology.”
However, Sims is an incredibly controversial figure who experimented upon slave women, which is how he developed the speculum. As Rose Eveleth pointed out in a 2014 article for The Atlantic, no one’s been able to improve upon the original design. Changing the name, alas, won’t change that history.
Also problematic is the hysterectomy, given the fact it was supposed to cure women of “hysteria.”
Dr. Nisha Khot, who sits on the council of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says she now uses the term “uterectomy.”
“The push for change may have started in the area of women’s health but the conversation is now in the wider health community,” Khot said.
“It just makes sense for the medics but also for the patients to use more understandable terms.”
Khot is “teaching trainee doctors to look at alternative terminology,” according to the Daily Mail.
“The young trainee doctors are mostly keen to learn the more relevant language and are often shocked when they hear the origins of some medical terms,” Khot said.
Small, meanwhile, noted that much of the female reproductive system is named “after dead dudes.” Well, yes, and the world was a much more sexist place when those medical discoveries were being made, but those “dudes” put in the work to discover those aspects of the female reproductive system — and a whole multitude of other body parts and conditions.
That they were “dudes” in a dude-dominated era doesn’t erase that work.
There are still conditions to be discovered, mind you — and since eponyms remain a tradition in medicine, I would assume going forward they won’t be so dude-centric.
This isn’t even touching on the fact that the Adam’s apple and Achilles tendon are on this list. Both of these are metaphorical terms which describe, in an easy-to-understand way, what something is. The Achilles tendon connects the heel bone to the calf muscles; the Greek mythological figure Achilles was known for his weakness, his heel.
The Adam’s apple, meanwhile, describes the larger larynx men tend to have. “Laryngeal protrusion” or something like that might not be a “more understandable term.”
We won’t enter a post-colonial or post-misogynist era if we change the name of our body parts. Medical professionals won’t become more enlightened if they’re not referencing Italian anatomist Gabriele Fallopio every time they talk about the Fallopian tubes.
For the patient, this is merely replacing one term they won’t be able to instinctively understand upon first hearing it with another term they won’t be able to instinctively understand upon first hearing it.
There’s one thing we can be sure of, though: Considering everything that’s going on in the world of medicine right now, at least some people have the right priorities.
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