A Nazi Past Casts a Pall on Name of a Disease

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What’s in a disease’s name? Long-hidden shame, perhaps.

In most cases, as with lung cancer or heart failure, names are not much more than thumbnail descriptions. But for a few common illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease and for hundreds of rarer ones, doctors and patients often use names honoring the first doctor to publicize the illness or its symptoms.

Some doctors have criticized that as a source of confusion. Different names are used in different countries in some cases.

And because some names became widely used before the disease was fully understood, the names may obscure ties to related problems.

Another shortcoming is drawing new attention. The controversy centers on Dr. Friedrich Wegener, a German pathologist who in 1936 identified a rare blood vessel inflammation that since the 1950s has been called Wegener’s granulomatosis. The American College of Chest Physicians awarded Wegener a “master clinician” prize in 1989, a year before he died.

In 2000, Dr. Eric Matteson, a rheumatologist at the Mayo Clinic, and Dr. Alexander Woywodt, a kidney specialist now living in England, set out to write a column celebrating Wegener for The Lancet, the British medical journal. They uncovered a Nazi past that Wegener had kept secret after World War II.

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