Medical Definition of Protean

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Protean: Very variable; easily changing; or continually changing. Protean is not to be confused with protein (a member of a large group of chemicals necessary to and found in all living things).

Protean refers to Proteus, the mythologic master of disguise. According to the ancient Greeks, Proteus was the shepherd who looked after Poseidon's sea creatures. Proteus had the gift of prophecy. Determined not to share his knowledge, he changed his shape to avoid attention. The only way to learn what he knew was to sneak up behind him during his nap and hold him (while he frantically changed from shape to shape) until he revealed what he knew. Protean means as mutable and adaptable as the mythological shepherd.

For example, the ways in which AIDS may present are numerous, and thus, protean.

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Reviewed on 12/11/2018

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