Dynamite and word-coining

Little Willie 1911 Trawling the Web a while ago, I ran into a website full of Little Willie jokes. These are a venerable form of sick humor dating back to at least 1904; they made a brief comeback in the 1960s all over the world. You can find way too many of them at the wonderful website Ruthless Rhymes. Warning: This site is hazardous to the preconceptions of those who think the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a More Innocent Time.

Today’s post features an interesting medical Little Willie from 1906 demonstrating the principle of eponymy. Eponyms are terms derived from names of people or places, and they are quite common in medicine, which, as a science, likes to commemorate discoverers of things. One of my favorite research topics is Dr. John Benjamin Murphy (1857-1916), a famously controversial Chicago surgeon. He was a native of Appleton, Wisconsin, practiced for a long time in Chicago, was much more popular in Europe than he was at home, but is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, IL, a beautiful showplace of monuments that my husband and I visited often when we lived in a hovel around the corner from 1991 to 1992.[1]

Murphy has been commemorated by the American College of Surgeons with a splendiferous auditorium. On Halloween 2013, I’ll be giving a paper about my Biographical Subjects in that very auditorium, which is weirdly cool because Murphy may very well have been an influence on my Biographical Subjects’ careers. At the very least, Murphy took out their nephew’s appendix in the late 1890s.

Among other things, Murphy was an early champion of the appendectomy. Enroute, he lent his name to clinical signs as well as surgical devices:

Murphy’s sign
Murphy drip
Murphy’s button
Murphy’s punch
Murphy’s test

and shared the credit for:

Murphy-Lane bone skid

[From http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1183442/.]

Spot the eponym in the following Little Willie:

Willie fetched his grandpa, kind,
(Chloroform he couldn’t find)
Blew him up with dynamite–
Willie was an Oslerite.

[from the Princeton Tiger; Published in the Los Angeles Herald, March 11, 1906 under the article title “Vicious College Humor”]

The eponym “Oslerite” is used to convey the idea that Willie follows the philosophy of Dr. Osler. This works much better if you know who Dr. Osler was. This explanation appears at Ruthless Rhymes:

“Professor William Osler (1849 – 1919) is well known in the field of gerontology for the speech he gave when leaving Hopkins to become the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. His speech “The Fixed Period”, given on 22 February 1905, included some controversial words about old age. Osler, who had a well-developed humorous side to his character, was in his mid-fifties when he gave the speech and in it he mentioned Anthony Trollope’s The Fixed Period (1882), which envisaged a College where men retired at 67 and after a contemplative period of a year were ‘peacefully extinguished’ by chloroform. He claimed that, “the effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of twenty-five and forty” and it was downhill from then on. Osler’s speech was covered by the popular press which headlined their reports with “Osler recommends chloroform at sixty”.’

All of which goes to show that the problem of media miscommunication and attention-getting headlines is a lot older than we 21st-century netizens tend to remember.


[1] Sort of kidding about the hovel.

Author: cat

Associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

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