JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.
A common error of medical writers, which is by no means limited to the novice, is that of describing the size and shape of a pathologic growth or area of tissues by comparing it with some common object, a method which is a constant source of annoyance and difficulty to those who would afterward make use of their descriptions. The chief reason why this method is defective is that an object that may be common in one country may be unfamiliar in another, and also that the size of the same class of objects may be subject to great variations. For example, English writers say frequently that a lesion is the size of a horse bean; now what will that signify to an Italian student of the literature? To specify sizes by comparison to such things as a horse chestnut, a lentil, a watermelon seed, or a muskmelon is sure to give rise to international complications; and our foreign contemporaries are just as prone to these provincial comparisons as we ourselves are. In an article at hand, in German, the author refers to a “kastaniengross” tumor, and to another the size of an “Apfelsine;” now does he appreciate that to an Italian reader the word chestnut calls to mind an object several times as large as it does to an American, and how is the reader of any nationality to know whether the author refers to the Italian chestnut, which is a common article of commerce in Germany, or to the native German chestnut, which, if our remembrance is correct, is intermediate in size between the Italian and the American variety? And as for the orange-sized tumor, has our German pathologist ever seen an American navel monster, or does he know only the smaller fruit of southern Europe? Examples might be multiplied to great length, and will occur to every reader of medical literature, to whom they have probably been a source of time-consuming annoyance. When every country has some system of weights and measures, why not use it in describing objects which possess dimensions that it is desired to record? Even although the system be no better than the one in vogue in English-speaking countries, it furnishes at least a fixed unit, which does not vary according to the climate or the season, as do the vegetable units so dear to many writers.
THE ERROR OF THE VEGETABLE UNIT DESCRIPTION.. JAMA. 2007;298(12):1459. doi:10.1001/jama.298.12.1459-a