By Alan Graner
Columbus “discovered” the New World, so of course it was named after him, right?
Ha! Bet you can’t even name the guy whose name graces our continent. It was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer who arrived some eight years after Columbus.
It’s Stigler’s Law of Eponymy.
What is an “eponym?”
An eponym is a proper name used generically. For example, braille is named after its inventor, Louis Braille. Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet was named after Saint Cyril. Uziel Gal gave his name to the Uzi submachine gun. And Louisiana was named after France’s King Louis XIV.
Stigler’s Law of Eponymy
Prof. Stephen Stigler at Chicago University (who didn’t actually discover this “law”—he attributes it to Robert K. Merton) stated, “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.”
In other words, “Whoa! Why wasn’t that named after me?”
Most everybody today is familiar with Alzheimer’s disease, named after Alois Alzheimer. But I bet you can’t name the half-dozen people who described the disease before he did.
Gresham’s Law basically says that bad money drives out good. It’s commonly attributed to Sir Thomas Gresham, but Copernicus stated the law the same year Gresham was born.
In high school geometry you learned the Pythagorean Theorem. Pythagoras? A Greek Johnny-come-lately. The Babylonians discovered the theorem long before.
And Halley’s comet? Astronomers discovered it over 2,000 years ago. Halley got his moniker on it because he first plotted the comet’s orbit and predicted its return.
The Matthew Effect
Think of this as a corollary to Stigler’s Law.
Coined by Robert K. Merton after a passage in Matthew’s Gospel, it states that famous scientists get more credit than unknown researchers, even if their work is similar.
A few years after he graduated college, Theobald Smith got a job as an inspector at the new Bureau of Animal Industry. Here he was the first to identify a bacterium that infected humans through contaminated water and food. Naturally the bacterium was named…salmonella, after his boss Daniel E. Salmon.
And though five other physicists suggested the existence of the Higgs boson, it was named after Peter Higgs, who received the Nobel Prize for his efforts (along with researcher François Englert. The other four researchers? Fuggetaboutit.
And one more thing: Arabic numerals? They originated in India.
Can you add any more examples?
Image: Diego Gutiérrez and Hieronymus Cock via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1562_Americ%C3%A6_Guti%C3%A9rrez.JPG
Alan Graner is Chief Creative Officer at Daly-Swartz Public Relations, an Orange County, CA marketing communications firm. For a public relations campaign that makes you stick out from the crowd, email Jeffrey Swartz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit www.dsprel.com.