Two hundred fifty years ago a James Parkinson was born in Shoreditch, on the outskirts of London. Sixty nine years later he was buried in the same town church where he was baptized and married. In the intervening years (1755-1824) he made extensive, landmark contributions in many disparate disciplines that reflected his brilliance, percipience and wide ranging interests.
James was the second of the four generations of Parkinson apothecary/surgeons. He apprenticed under his father at the age of 16 years by which time he was already fluent in Latin, Greek and adept at shorthand. By the end of the decade, he was spearheading the flourishing family practice. His first published contribution was a paper on the “Effects of Lightning” which earned him membership as a Surgeon in the prestigious “Corporation of London”. There he worked with legendary Dr John Hunter (a school-dropout at 13 who became a pioneer in the fields of anatomy, surgery, dentistry, venereal diseases, digestion…….but that’s another story). The lecture notes James transcribed in shorthand were later translated and published as “Hunterian Reminiscences”by his son.
In the 1790s while England was witnessing political upheaval, James Parkinson became a government critic and an active member of the famous London Corresponding Society for Reform of Parliamentary Representation – a secret political society advocating universal suffrage and parliamentary reforms, thought to be complicit in a plot to assassinate King George III.
Turning away from politics, between 1799-1807 James penned a series of popular treatises aimed at promoting health education among lay people. His wide and varied interests can be grasped from the titles of some his work in this period: – Observations on the Nature and Cure of Gout, The Villager’s Friend and Physician, Dangerous sports: A tale addressed to Children, Observations on the Excessive Indulgence of Children, Hints for the Improvement of Trusses- for Hernias.
Gradually, his interests further expanded into the fields of chemistry, geology and paleontology. He started collecting fossils in 1799 and by early 1800 he had published three illustrated volumes of “Organic Remains of the Former World” which was to become the first formal scientific exposition on paleontology. This fetched him widespread accolades as far as Russia. Three fossils bear his name.
All this while, he continued his surgical practice. In 1812 his son, John, and he reported a “Case of diseased appendix vermiformis”. This was the first description of a case of appendicitis in England, recognizing rupture of the appendix as the cause of death.
Though James Parkinson is remembered for much by many, his fame rests on the syndrome he first described at the age of 62, in the classic paper “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”, published in 1817.
His vivid word portrait remains unparalleled: “Involuntary tremulous motion…, with a propensity to bend the trunk forewards, and to pass from a walking to a running pace: the senses and intellect being uninjured.” This lucid account was based on his observations of 6 patients including a gardener and a sailor whom he observed from across the road.
This paper, however, did not receive the attention it deserved during James Parkinson’s lifetime. It gained its due fame fifty years later, when Dr Jean Martin Charcot (considered the pre- – eminent neurologist of his day) drew attention to it and recommended Parkinson as an eponym for the syndrome, adding rigidity to the constellation of symptoms.
Till as late as 1920s the ailment was more commonly referred to as the “shaking palsy”.
As J. G. Rowntree wrote in 1912, “English born, English bred, forgotten by the English and the world at large, such was the fate of James Parkinson”. In fact, no likenesses of James Parkinson are known to exist.
However, since then Parkinson has been immortalized.
The essay that started it all…