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Happy Birthday, Dupuytren, and Thanks for the Name!

Happy Dupuytren Day! Guillaume Dupuytren, the famous surgeon, was born on 5 October 1777. He would have been 246 years old today. If he were alive now, there’s a good chance he’d have the disease named after himself.

Why is it called Dupuytren disease or Dupuytren contracture? Most medical disorders are named in one of three ways. Dupuytren has all three.

Many names are eponyms – the name of someone linked to the disease, usually the doctor who first described it. For example, surgeon James Parkinson first described “paralysis agitans”, which came to be known as Parkinson disease. Dupuytren described the condition and operated on his patient in front of a live medical audience. He believed it came from mechanical stresses: his patient held horse reins as a coachman. He didn’t name it himself, but at the time, he was the most famous surgeon in Europe, so his name stuck.

Another way to name conditions is by describing what they look like, often in Latin, so it sounds official. For example, a vesicle is a small blister and a bulla is a large blister. Dupuytren has been described as palmar fascial fibromatosis, contraction of palmar fascia, and similar terms.

Lay names are the third source of medical names, usually simple explanations or descriptions. For example, tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis), athlete’s foot (fungal dermatosis), and lockjaw (tetanus). Dupuytren has many lay names, including Viking disease, Celtic hand, and “the curse of the MacCrimmons“. In Denmark, it’s been called kuskefingre – Danish for “Coachman’s finger“, from Dupuytren’s original theory. Catchy, but medically inaccurate.

Dupuytren contracture was described by Felix Plater in 1610, and by others long before Dupuytren’s time. Before Dupuytren, it was called “crispatura tendinum” by Boyer, and “permanent retraction of the fingers” by Cooper. Dupuytren won the naming competition.

Guillaume Dupuytren’s most significant contribution to Dupuytren contracture is not his surgical operation. It’s not his theory of what causes it. It’s not his description of the anatomy. It’s that it became the standard name for this condition. Why is that a big deal? Because a standard name allows doctors and scientists in different countries speaking different languages to collaborate. When you say or write “Dupuytren disease”, people know exactly what you’re talking about, regardless of location or language. For example, this image is from a 1997 publication in The Journal of the Korean Rheumatism Association:

For English speakers, Dupuytren is hard to spell and its pronunciation doesn’t make sense. Should we rename it? No!  It’s a way for patients to talk about what they are dealing with. It’s the rallying cry of those working on a cure, like the Dupuytren Research Group.

So even though he had no role in choosing either his birthdate (Happy Birthday!) or his name (Thanks for the eponym!), today is the right day to celebrate both. Happy Dupuytren Day!

– Charles Eaton MD