Wednesday, February 24, 2010


This is the first in a multi-part blog on the topic of FIRST CREDIT in the sciences.

Stigler's law of eponymy, "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer."

- SM Stigler (1)

According to Stigler, credit always goes to the wrong person, and this is the essence of Stigler's law of eponymy (which, according to Stigler, must have been invented by someone other than Stigler). Stigler provides numerous examples of credit going to the wrong scientist (1). "Laplace employed Fourier Transforms in print before Fourier published on the topic, that Lagrange presented Laplace Transforms before Laplace began his scientific career, that Poisson published the Cauchy distribution in 1824, twenty-nine years before Cauchy touched on it in an incidental manner, and that Bienayme stated and proved the Chebychev Inequality a decade before and in greater generality than Chebychev's first work on the topic."

Yes, misleading eponymous terms are commonplace in the sciences. Marcello Malpighi (1628 - 1694) was an Italian physician who was one of the earliest scientists to use the microscope to describe tissues and their diseases. He was the first to describe lymphoadenoma, the lymphoma known today as Hodgkin's disease. More than a century later, Thomas Hodgkin (1798 - 1866) wrote a manuscript and credited Malpighi with the first description of the disease. Nonetheless, the eponym for the lymphoma went to Hodgkin.

Source: Garrison FH. History of medicine.
WB Saunders, Philadelphia, 1921.

Likewise, the Wheatstone bridge, introduced in 1843, was not invented by Charles Wheatstone (1802 - 1875). Wheatstone, working from the prototype, improved and popularized the device. The eponym was bestowed on Wheatstone, despite his protestations. The original bridge was invented by Samuel Hunter Christie (1784 - 1865), in 1833.

[1] Stigler SM. Statistics on the table: the history of statistical concepts and methods. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, p 277, 1999.


© 2010 Jules Berman

key words: history of science , specified life blog , Jules J Berman PhD, MD
Science is not a collection of facts. Science is what facts teach us; what we can learn about our universe, and ourselves, by deductive thinking. From observations of the night sky, made without the aid of telescopes, we can deduce that the universe is expanding, that the universe is not infinitely old, and why black holes exist. Without resorting to experimentation or mathematical analysis, we can deduce that gravity is a curvature in space-time, that the particles that compose light have no mass, that there is a theoretical limit to the number of different elements in the universe, and that the earth is billions of years old. Likewise, simple observations on animals tell us much about the migration of continents, the evolutionary relationships among classes of animals, why the nuclei of cells contain our genetic material, why certain animals are long-lived, why the gestation period of humans is 9 months, and why some diseases are rare and other diseases are common. In “Armchair Science”, the reader is confronted with 129 scientific mysteries, in cosmology, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Beginning with simple observations, step-by-step analyses guide the reader toward solutions that are sometimes startling, and always entertaining. “Armchair Science” is written for general readers who are curious about science, and who want to sharpen their deductive skills.