A Curse Upon You!

There are many medical terms named after people (eponyms if you want to be posh about it), usually the name of the person discovering the relevant condition/sign/body part etc. A great number of these eponyms are still widely used (Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease are probably the best known) though more and more are being slowly replaced with more scientific, “does what it says on the tin”, terms.

Discovering something and then naming it after yourself is nice recognition for your work, but doesn’t really make for an interesting story. I like to have the occasional bit of unexpected mystery in life, and in this respect the biggest loss has to be “Ondine’s Curse”. This condition, which I had never come across until today, was named in reference to a story from Germanic mythology (possibly French depending on where you read).

Ondine was a Naiad, or water nymph, an immortal spirit bound to a body of water. A Naiad could only die if the water she lived in dried up, or if she became mortal by falling in love with a mortal man and bearing his child.

According to the legend, one day Ondine sees and falls in love with a handsome knight called Sir Lawrence. Eventually they marry and exchange vows, pledging eternal love to one another. As so often with marriages in this kind of story, a child soon follows, and so Ondine loses her immortality, becoming effectively human, and begins to age.

Over time, as Ondine ages and some of her beauty diminishes, Sir Lawrence begins to find himself less attracted to Ondine, and his attention strays towards other women. Inevitably, he is unable to keep this a secret indefinitely and Ondine finds out about this infidelity, catching him in the another woman’s arms in the stables one day.

As the saying goes, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and on catching Lawrence in flagrante, Ondine pronounces a curse upon him. In their wedding vows he promised to love her until his “last waking breath”, so Ondine tells him that while is awake he may still breathe, but if he ever falls asleep he will stop breathing and die.

So, in 1962, when Severinghaus and Mitchell discovered a condition that led to infants dying, usually but not always in their sleep, because, in simple terms, the drive to breathe coming from the brain was weak or missing, they modestly decided not to go for the name Severinghaus-Mitchell Syndrome, choosing instead Ondine’s Curse. Perhaps they were just showing off, going for an obscure mythological reference to prove how erudite and superior they were, but hopefully not.

I don’t always agree with the trend toward eliminating most of the eponyms in medicine, but it makes sense that the  parents of babies with this problem are now spared the additional torment of being told that their child has a ‘curse’. Still, it does seem a shame that it’s now known, much less romantically, as Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome.


5 thoughts on “A Curse Upon You!

    • It’s a really rare condition, but possibly not as rare as we think as it may be the true cause of many early deaths that are attributed to other things, especially SIDS or ‘cot death’. Nice story behind the name though

    • Out of interest, does Z, or you as her mum, have any particular feelings about the name Ondine’s Curse? I often wonder how offensive/insensitive some of the old labels for various things, nowadays considered un-PC or inappropriate, really are to the people concerned.

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