“Pudendum” isn’t the only questionable term slinking around in the female pelvis. Pull out a map to this region and you face an array of unfamiliar landmarks: Alcock’s canal, the pouch of Douglas, Bartholin’s glands, the fallopian tubes. These are all body parts named in honor of the people thought to have “discovered” them. They are relics from a time when the female body was considered terra incognita for great minds of medicine to explore, stake out and claim.
But such terms may be on their way out of medicine. Scientifically, anatomists frown on naming parts after people for several reasons. These terms are useless, offering little information about what any given body part actually does. They’re confusing: Surnames sometimes vie for the same part (for example, the bodies of Arantius are also known as the nodules of Morgagni), and some surnames adorn multiple parts (Gabriele Falloppio lays claim to a tube, a canal, a muscle and a valve, not to mention a flowering buckwheat plant). Finally, they give the unfortunate, off-putting impression that medicine (and the female pelvis) is still an old boys’ club.
Such terms were officially banned from medicine in 1895. Unofficially, they are everywhere. A recent count found at least 700 in the human body, most of which take their names from men. (One of the few women on the body’s map is Raissa Nitabuch, a 19th-century Russian pathologist whose name is attached to a layer of the maturing placenta called the Nitabuch membrane.) They persist because they are memorable, recognizable and — for clinicians, at least — familiar.
I was initially surprised, as I’d always assumed that ‘g-spot’ and ‘fallopian tube’ were the scientific terms. But it makes sense, as the autoimmune condition I was diagnosed with in 2008 was originally called Wegener’s Syndrome, after the German who first documented it. These days it is referred to by its medical term, Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis, but of course the charity here in the UK that works to improve diagnosis and treatment is named after Wegener.