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James Parkinson discovered a debilitating disease 200 years ago – and did plenty more besides

He was a doctor, a political radical, a pioneering geologist, and a champion of the poor. But James Parkinson is best known for discovering the disease which bears his name. It was in 1817 that he wrote his Essay on the Shaking Palsy. And the symptoms he described so precisely two centuries ago are still used to diagnose Parkinson’s disease today.

But the 200-year-old discovery was just one of many achievements in Parkinson’s extraordinary life. Born on April 11 1755, he was a doctor (or more precisely, an apothecary surgeon) who practised in Hoxton, then a small village just outside London. It was a time when epidemics stalked the cities, festering in the dirty and overcrowded houses.

If smallpox didn’t kill you, it disfigured you for life. Infant mortality was 50% (Parkinson was unable to save three of his own seven children), and no anaesthetics were available for those unfortunate enough to need surgery.

It was within this challenging environment that Parkinson devoted his life to attending to the poor and needy. He wrote advice for those struggling to afford medical care on how to avoid getting ill, how to recognise what was wrong if you did, and when to call in the physician (unnecessary visits cost money). These books, which often contradicted prevailing medical advice, made Parkinson a household name. But he also wrote damning pamphlets criticising those who ruled over the poor.

After the French Revolution in 1789, many in Britain were sympathetic to their revolutionary comrades in France. Subject to laws made by a government the vast majority had no say in electing (only 2% of the population could vote), workers were not paid a living wage, and heavy taxes were imposed to finance a war with France they did not support.

With no formal way of people registering their discontent, political societies emerged to lobby for a reform of parliament and the working man’s right to vote. Parkinson energetically joined in this outcry for political reform. His many anti-government publications, written using the pseudonym “Old Hubert”, vividly portray the misery and poverty that prevailed.

The King (“mad” King George III) and his government were terrified by what was happening in France. Fearing that events could be replicated in England, stringent measures were put in place to curtail these political societies’ activities. The act of selling a “seditious” pamphlet became sufficient cause for imprisonment, so when three of Parkinson’s friends were arrested for allegedly plotting to kill the king, he feared for their lives. Parkinson immediately informed the authorities he was willing to put before them, under oath, evidence of his friends’ innocence.

In the prevailing political climate, it was an extremely brave thing to do. By standing up for his friends, Parkinson himself ran the risk of being implicated in the plot. When interrogated, the audacity with which he answered (or did not answer) questions put by the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, and the Lords of the Privy Council is breath-taking. He refused to answer many questions for fear of “criminating” himself and told Pitt how to handle the interrogation. He put his life on the line for the sake of his friends.

Like many Enlightenment figures, Parkinson had wide-ranging interests. He described the newly emerging subject of geology as his “favourite science”. He amassed a magnificent collection of fossils at a time when these objects were poorly understood. Brought up to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, he underwent a tremendous intellectual struggle as he began to understand what fossils were telling him about the formation of the Earth.

Before Darwin

Fossils revealed the world to be very ancient and that creation had not occurred as stated in the Bible. But how to explain such biblical contradictions without offending the religious sensibilities of his audience? It was same the problem faced by Charles Darwin some 50 years later.

Parkinson’s beautifully illustrated three-volume work on fossils, Organic remains of a former world, became hugely popular. Even the Romantic poets were inspired by these books, referring to them in their poetry. Shelley is known to have owned Parkinson’s works and many of the scientific references in Prometheus Unbound such as “the secrets of the Earth’s deep heart”, have been traced to these. Byron, in his poem Don Juan also refers to Organic remains of a former world.

Others paid tribute to Parkinson’s expertise by naming many fossils after him. Described at the time by the president of the newly formed Geological Society as “not merely the best but almost the only fossilist of his day”, it was Parkinson who turned the collecting of fossils into a science and put palaeontology on the scientific map of Britain.

Parkinson’s most famous work. Wikimediacommons

Then in 1817, at the age of 62 and with decades of medical experience behind him, Parkinson wrote his Essay on the Shaking Palsy. Although favourably reviewed in the medical press, it was not recognised at the time as the seminal work it turned out to be, and it was some 50 years before the disease was named after him.

A year before Parkinson died (in 1824) he was awarded the Royal College of Surgeons’ first Gold Medal – a very great tribute. They did not honour him for his extensive medical publications however, not even his paper on the shaking palsy. He actually received the prize for his “splendid Work on Organic Remains”. So while World Parkinson’s Day is now held on April 11 (his birthday) every year, perhaps we should also remember him for the other massive contribution he made … to his favourite science.

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