IN a search for distraction from record-breaking lockdowns, thuggish “freedom” protesters, and – can this really be happening – earthquakes, I found myself thinking last week about anatomical naming. As you do.

Our glorious human bodies have so many moving parts it takes a dictionary to list all the anatomical terms used to describe them.

Some are beautiful, poetic even. I have a particular affection for the names taken from ancient Greek or Latin: the vinegar bowl holding our thigh bone in place, the sea horse carrying our memories, the labyrinth curled within our ear.

The names of many anatomical parts are eponyms, meaning they take their names from people. This Wikipedia page lists around 200 of them.

Often, the terms honour anatomists who claimed discovery rights, though they also include mythological humans such as Adam and Achilles.

The one thing the names on the Wikipedia list appear to have in common is that they all belong to men.

I imagine those early men of science frantically dissecting cadavers, legally obtained or otherwise, seeking some obscure anatomical feature they could apply their name to. It’s eerily reminiscent of colonial explorers who planted their poles on newly “discovered” geographical features, blithely renaming them after themselves or their mates.

Nowhere is the proliferation of male names more obvious than in the specifically female parts of the body. Think Fallopian tubes, Bartholin’s glands, pouch of Douglas and so on.

Even the possibly mythological G-spot is named for a man: German gynaecologist Ernst Grafenburg who, in 1950, claimed to have discovered inside the vagina “a primary erotic zone, perhaps more important than the clitoris”.

Queensland gynaecologist Dr Kirsten Small drew attention to this male naming of female bodies in 2020, when she posted on Twitter:

“I teach anatomy and have found there is always an alternative to the dead man’s name for body parts. Fallopian tube = uterine tube. Pouch of Douglas = rectovaginal pouch. We have a personal choice to decolonise our language. Make use of it.”

The Twitter conversation prompted three West Australian emergency doctors to delve deeper into the widespread and longstanding use of eponyms in anatomy and histology.

“We found myriad inconsistencies, confusion, misogyny [and] inaccuracy…” they wrote.

The 700 terms they identified derived from the names of 432 people, of whom 424 were male physicians. The other eight included five gods, a king, a classical hero, and a woman.

The inclusion of gods allows Venus to make the list, for her eponymous mound, but also opens the door to Hymen and other male deities.

The lone mortal woman was 19th century Russian pathologist Raissa Nitabuch, who gave her name to the internal fibrinoid layer of the placenta.

It’s probably surprising to see even one woman, given the average date of naming was 1847 when medical schools were an all-male preserve. By the time the 20th century rolled around, there really weren’t that many body parts still up for grabs.

Analysis of the list reveals other aspects of the history of medical authority too. Although 30 countries are represented, a phenomenal 57% of the eponyms come from just three: Germany, France and Italy.

The authors note the tainted history of some eponyms. The Clara cells of the bronchiolar epithelium, for example, are named for Max Clara who acknowledged in his 1937 paper obtaining his sample from a prisoner executed by the Nazis. Wikipedia also has a list of medical eponyms with Nazi associations.

All in all, these authors argue, the eponyms have to go, if only because of the confusion they create.

Often they’ve entered the medical nomenclature in “a haphazard and chaotic manner”. Some anatomical parts are claimed by more than one discoverer, while the most prolific medical men have sprinkled their names across numerous parts of the body.

The winner on that front is 18th century Italian pathologist Giovanni Battista Morgagni, whose devotion to anatomy and dissection saw him score an extraordinary 15 eponyms.

For another take on all this, I’d recommend watching Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas, on Netflix.

Not only does Gadsby make you think about Douglas’ eponymous pouch in a new light, she also asks men to imagine how things might have gone if women had been in the room when the anatomical names were handed out.

How, she wonders, might men feel if they had to ask their urologist about an issue, not with their testicles, but with their “Karen’s handful”.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.





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11 thoughts on “A pouch of Douglas by any other name …

  1. Anonymous says:

    ‘Moving with the times’ in this case equals the currently popular historical revisionism.

    Surely Medicine has to pull down its fair share of statues too.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Over 50 years ago I recall that the same cases were being put forward regarding eponymous vs. anatomical nomenclature.
    These were not born of a sex bias but of cool logic.
    Nothing seems to have changed however……………..

    Perhaps now, with women leading the push, a rational lexicon will be delivered?

  3. Randal Williams says:

    In response to Sue Ieraci; Medicine is full of eponymous names just as easily , if not more easily memorised than exact pathological descriptions–would you also want to rename Parkinson’s and Huntingtons diseases, Colles and Pott’s fractures, Addison’s and Bright’s diseases etc etc which are widely used and understood and much less cumbersome than the pathological description ? Use of these names also reminds us of the people who first described the disease or condition, and the debt we owe to the physicians and surgeons of old.

  4. Elliot Rubinstein says:

    Strangely I find a lot about moving with the times very backward

  5. Max says:

    As with the now-unacceptable mnemonics, Anatomy vastly easier to learn with some sort of unique hook like an eponymous name than a gaggle of hyphenated or compound Latin nouns.
    One can’t help feeling this would be a non-issue in a specialty where all the eponymous names were female.

  6. Andrew Nielsen says:

    Colonialism? Well… have you noticed that the people who want to decolonise are white people teaching on stolen Aboriginal land? Have you noticed that they appropriated the word “decolonise” without asking? IIRC, the person who wanted to decolonise was a medical person teaching nursing students. The nurses should get an indigenous nurse to teach them if they want to decolonise properly.

    Two issues are easily conflated here. 1) Changing the names because they are technically better and 2) Changing the names to get men out of nomenclature. Motivation does matter. This didn’t start because people found the eponymous names confusing.

    If you want to decolonise properly, get rid of uterus. It is named from Latin, a dead language that has been used by elites (e.g. the Catholic Church) to keep the lower orders in line and has spread throughout the world as part of white, Eurocentric superiority. The only way to decolonise properly is to rename organs using the names given them by different cultures throughout the world, and by POC (people of colour).

    So, white, anglo women: I bet you will be less keen on decolonisation when the boot is on the other foot. Grossly hypocritical and stupid.

  7. Sue Ieraci says:

    It would be a pity to insist on keeping eponymous names that require memorisation, when descriptive names make so much more sense. It’s not about “cancel culture” at all, but about moving with the times. Those with an interest in medical history can look up the person who first named the structure, accepting that the head of a department may have been given naming rights.

  8. Anonymous says:

    When one looks at the proposed official names for some of the eponymously named structures, one sees that a shorthand version has merit. Whether or not that shorthand version should include a person’s name is open for debate, though. I’m not convinced that throwing out years of traditional usage is absolutely essential. As was pointed out by Ms McCredie, the naming conventions were a product of their time, and use of those names in 2021 shouldn’t be seen as automatically fostering and supporting misogyny. Personally, I do prefer to use anatomically descriptive terms as being more accurate, but I don’t believe using widely recognised eponyms is a great evil that must be eradicated at all costs.

  9. C says:

    it’s a sign of respect for people who went to the trouble of discovering things that nobody else had bothered to.
    of course modern day cancel culture likes to denigrate and ignore people of the past.

  10. Megan Phelps says:

    Also see the work of 2019 Charles Perkins Centre writer-in-residence, Tracy Sorensen, both written and crafted:

  11. Randal Williams says:

    It would be a pity to lose eponymous names ( which are part of the history of medicine) because of misguided gender ideology. Obviously the vast majority of early anatomists and surgeons were male, hence gave their names to both anatomical structures they discovered and and surgical instruments they designed. These are in common usage and well understood. Once again we have a type of cancel culture keen to deny all this.

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