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The Wrongly Famous in Medical History

Author: M. Aroon Kamath, M.D. | Submitted: September 17, 2010. Updated: November 24, 2014.

M. Aroon Kamath, M.D.'s avatar

In medical history, there have been instances wherein, one gained “name” and “fame” for “describing” a particular condition or “performing” a procedure, when in fact, someone else had already described or performed that procedure. Some conditions have been wrongly named after individuals who neither described nor performed them first. History is also laced with instances of supreme magnanimity as well. Here are a few examples of those who were distained “to be, or not to be” ‘famous’.

Fallot’s tetralogy

Fallot’s tetralogy was first described in 1672 by a Danish anatomist, Niels Stensen (who also described the parotid duct in 1661) and in 1888 by the French physician Etienne Fallot, for whom it is named. In Stenson’s case, the consolation is that he is at least well known for the parotid duct that is named after him!

The McBurney incision

The well known lateral muscle-splitting or “gridiron” incision is generally called the McBurney incision after Dr. Charles McBurney of New York. The incision was used almost simultaneously by Dr. Lewis L. McArthur of Chicago, and was to have been presented to the Chicago Medical Society in June 1894. The program ran overtime and McArthur’s paper was postponed. McBurney’s publication was in the July 1894, issue of Annals of Surgery. McBurney conceded priority to McArthur in a letter as well as publicly, but use of the term “McBurney incision” has continued to this day [1].

Morton’s neuralgia (Morton’s metatarsalgia)

Lewis Durlacher (1845), a chiropodist to Queen Victoria, had described the classical features of this condition in his book, before Thomas George Morton who wrongly attributed the symptoms to the subluxation of the metatarso-phalangeal joint (MTPJ) and advocated excision of the MTPJ. The term “Morton’s neuroma” came into use in the 19th century and was neither first described by Morton nor is a true neuroma. Despite calls to abandon this term, it continues to be used [2].

The Charles procedure for elephantiasis of lower limbs

The Charles procedure (1912) for elephantiasis of lower limbs is an ablative procedure named after Sir Richard Henry Havelock Charles whereby, the affected subcutaneous tissue is resected down to the muscle fascia and the raw area covered with skin grafts taken from the resected specimen. This procedure is no longer performed. The “Charles procedure”, as an eponym for the surgical treatment of leg edema, is actually a longstanding misnomer. Sir Havelock had never treated a patient with leg edema, but in 1950, Sir Archibald McIndoe, an eminent British plastic surgeon wrote an article in which he mistakenly claimed that Sir Charles had treated a patient with leg edema with excision of subcutaneous tissue and skin grafts back in 1912. Since then, the error began and has been propagated throughout the years [3].

Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Thomas Hodgkin (Guy’s hospital. London) first described this condition in 1832. Hodgkin left Guy’s Hospital in 1837. In 1856, Samuel Wilks (later, Sir Samuel Wilks) entered Guy’s hospital (where he was a student of Medicine earlier) as an assistant physician. In 1865, Samuel Wilks described the same disease independently with better precision. Later, when Wilks became aware of Hodgkin’s work, he recognized its priority and named it “Hodgkin’s disease” in a subsequent article in Guy’s Hospital Reports! [4] [5].

Poland syndrome

In 1962, Patrick Clarkson, a New Zealand born, British plastic surgeon working at Guy’s Hospital and Queen Mary’s Hospital, London, noticed that three of his patients had a combination of a hand deformity and an underdeveloped breast on the same side. Clarkson later came across a reference to a similar deformity published by Alfred Poland, over a hundred years earlier (in 1841) in Guy’s Hospital archives. Clarkson was able to trace the hand specimen originally dissected by Poland, which was still held in the hospital’s pathology museum. Poland had dissected a convict called George Elt, who was said to be unable to draw his hand across his chest. Poland noted the chest wall deformity, and this was illustrated in his article; the hand was also dissected and preserved for posterity in Guy’s Hospital museum where it remains today. Although, strictly speaking, Poland’s description can’t be called a ‘syndrome’ because he had only described one isolated case, Clarkson who published his series of three cases, named the syndrome after Poland in his article! [6] [7].

It is indeed a remarkable coincidence that two such examples of supreme magnanimity had occurred at Guy’s hospital, London under very similar circumstances!

Alexis Carrel & Charles Claude Guthrie

Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) was a French surgeon, biologist and eugenicist. Carrel has been variously referred to as the ‘father of Transplantation’, ‘father of Vascular Anastamoses’, and ‘father of Experimental Vascular Surgery’.Carrel’s experiments led to advances in vascular surgery and tissue culture. Carrel perfected the anastamosis of blood vessels which revolutionized vascular surgery and made it possible to transplant organs and restore amputated limbs.
His experiments in collaboration with the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1935, also led to the creation of the “perfusion pump”( a glass perfusion pump),  . He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912 for his work on vascular suture and the transplantation of blood vessels and organs.

The history of Alexis Carrel is inseparably linked to that of Charles Claude Guthrie.

Charles Claude Guthrie (1880 – 1963) was an American physiologist. A major part of the work that was the basis for Carrel being awarded the Nobel Prize, was performed jointly by Carrel and Guthrie during two 3-month periods in 1904 and 1906 at the Hull Laboratory at the University of Chicago, resulting in the publication of 21 jointly written papers. As Carrel spoke and wrote very little English, he also needed Guthrie’s help in writing his papers and speeches [8].

A 2001 book by Hugh E. Stephenson, Jr. and Robert S. Kimpton, America’s First Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, “The Story of Guthrie and Carrel”, argues that the primary credit for this work should have gone to Guthrie rather than Carrel. However, Guthrie’s head transplant experiments likely came in the way of his Nobel Prize candidacy status. On May 21, 1908, Charles Guthrie succeeded in grafting one dog’s head onto the side of another’s neck, creating the world’s first man-made two headed dog [9]. Charles Claude Guthrie remained an unsung hero of vascular surgery.

Daniel Elmer Salmon and Theobald Smith

In the case of Daniel Elmer Salmon (1850-1914) of “salmonella” fame, the ‘unsung hero’  is believed to be his assistant Theobald Smith who in fact discovered the bacillus - Salmonella cholerae-suis, during his studies on hog cholera.  Dr. Salmon was the administrator of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) research program, and thus the organism got named after him [10].

Gerhard Armauer Hansen and Albert Neisser

Norwegian physician Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen (1841-1912) identified the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae in 1873, but did not culture it or identify it as the causative organism of Leprosy. Albert Ludwig Sigesmund Neisser, a German physician (who later discovered Neisseria gonorrhoeae) using samples provided by Hansen, was able to stain the organisms and show that they caused leprosy. In the end however, the disease was named Hansen’s disease [10]. 

I will be much obliged if others could add more to this seemingly small list ...

M. Aroon Kamath, M.D.. The Wrongly Famous in Medical History. Doctors Lounge Website. Available at: Accessed December 07 2022.


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September 21, 2010 04:59 AM

Dear Mr.John and Dr.Jagesh,
Thank you so much for reading through my blog.I am more than certain that there must be many more such occurrences and many other “unsung” heroes.I only hope this post will stimulate readers to come forward with more such examples. It may be one small way in which we, in the medical fraternity can pay our tributes to individuals who are genuinely responsible for all the collective knowledge in Medical science, that we learn, practice and teach today.


September 19, 2010 08:57 PM

Dear Dr.Kamath,Very nice compilation.Enjoyed reading the blog.

September 19, 2010 08:10 PM

Dear Dr. Kamath,
This article is not only fascinating from a historical standpoint but in certain instances (such as Morton’s neuralgia)may well help clarify a medical confusion for some practitioners. Very interesting learning how these wrongly attributed terms originated!