A moral responsibility called naming


We are taught at an early age that there is nothing more precious than the sanctity of a good name. And further, that a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches (Proverbs 22:1). A family, a sect member, even a nation, may hold someone in great reverence. How then do they guarantee that this revered person’s name will not fade into total obscurity? The hazards of oblivion come to the fore when this personage’s friends, colleagues and former students enter an advanced age and, at best, are surviving in nursing homes. Who is there to remember when there are none alive to recall the many wondrous deeds of this exalted person?

Rome and other cultures of the past elevated their heroes to a status somewhat higher than human, placing their busts in structures called pantheons (temples consecrated to the gods and demigods). Currently, we remember those worthy of enduring remembrance when we attach their names to permanent structures or great institutions, in the hope that the named building will survive in perpetuity.

Prestige, of course, is a two-way contrivance. It enhances the reputation of both, the newly named facility as well as the person whose name had been used. Does the avowed purpose of the facility matter? Does the naming of an incineration plant, for example, carry as much prestige as the naming of a great courthouse? (New Englanders might not recognize the name, Peter B. Brigham, were it not for that eponymous hospital in Boston.)

Does, for example, having one’s name appended to an insane asylum bestow as much honor as one’s name giving title to a maternity hospital? Both health institutions labor to bring sanity and a new generation into the community, both, therefore, fulfilling a highly laudable, perhaps indispensible, need. Yet, when we ponder how a public benefaction might best be used, our ancient misbeliefs place the alleviation of emotional disorders at a lower level than maternity care.

A street wending its way through the treeless slums of an inner city carries less prestige than a grand avenue passing manicured parks and government buildings. The location of the avenue to bear an intended name becomes a critical determinant despite the reality that both streets answer the secular needs of each urban community; and, if esthetics are ignored for a moment, there is little doubt that the street lined by decrepit tenement houses serves the needs of more citizens than the sumptuous boulevard neighboring upon the city’s government structures.

Consider the family names of the eight Ivy League colleges. Four carry names of men who contributed materially to the beginnings or enhancement of their institution (Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell); two carry names derived from geographic sites (Princeton, Dartmouth); one bears an alternate name of these United States which its trustees adopted after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War (Columbia); and one college straddled two of these categories by giving their college a geographic name; yet, this name, in turn, had been named after a human (Pennsylvania).

Then there are those diseases named, without undue opprobrium, for their discoverers (Sydenham, Osler, Huntington, Alzheimer, Tay, Sachs, Grave and scores of others). Alternatively, the disease may be named after a geographic site where the ailment had first been documented (for example, African sites such as West Nile fever, Ebola fever, Lassa fever); sites in Asia such as Delhi; South American sites such as Ilheus; and sites within the United States: Tulare, California (tularemia), Rocky Mountain Fever and Coxsackie.

Many centuries in the past, Romeo Montague, a citizen of Verona, once dared to question whether there was any intrinsic meaning in a given name. As an example, he cited the fragrance and beauty of a rose; and then he asked whether the rose would be less attractive and its aroma less appealing if it had been called something else. Others might have reminded Romeo that our Creator gave us memories so that we might have roses in January.

During the earlier decades of the 20th century, for purposes of flood control and the harnessing of hydroelectric power, great dams were constructed on many of this nation’s hitherto uncontrolled waterways. The larger dams were named for political figures such as Norris or Hoover. The smaller dams, on the other hand, were named for neighboring towns. H. L. Mencken, (1880-1956) tells the story of a newly established dam in West Virginia neighboring upon a profoundly religious town called Gad (the seventh son of Old Testament Jacob and the founder of the Israelite tribe of Gad).

The chilling thought of a permanent and highly visible structure to be called Gad Dam mobilized its local citizens to protest what they claimed was a major blasphemy. And so it was renamed the Summersville Dam, a pleasantly neutral and inoffensive name. The regional newspapers then found other things to prey upon, thus depriving its anxious readers of news whether the neutral name of the dam brought spiritual equanimity to Gad.

STANLEY M. ARONSON, M.D. (smamd@cox.net) is dean of medicine emeritus at Brown University.