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James Parkinson and the “Shaking Palsy”

11th April is World Parkinson’s Day – and the birthday of the man who first described the symptoms of the Parkinson’s disease: the English physician James Parkinson.

James Parkinson was born in 1755 in Hoxton Square, London. His father, John Parkinson, was an apothecary and surgeon who owned a surgery. His son James worked in this surgery already during his studies. Parkinson was 21 years old when he started his studies at the London Hospital; in the year 1784 he graduated, left the London Hospital and started to work in his father’s surgery. After his father’s death he took over the surgery. Parkinson was a member at the Royal College of Surgeons and visited lectures; inter alia lectures held by John Hunter, one of the most famous surgeons of this time. Parkinson’s transcripts of these lectures where published, years after his death in 1833, by his son John, who was one of Parkinson’s six children.

Besides his work as physician, Parkinson also supported the lower class. In 1799 he published an essay with the title “Medical admonitions” in which he wrote down a row of proposals and demands for a better basic medical care. Next to that he built, while working as a physician, some infirmaries in the workhouse of the Shoreditch Church, one of those was a psychiatric one. In 1811 he plead in written form for a better supervision, more humane conditions and lawful protection of patients, their families and the treating physicians in the so-called “madhouses” of those times.

Parkinson did not only criticise the medicine of his time, he was also a political maverick. As a critic of the Pitt government and a sympathiser of the French Revolution he wrote several antiroyal scripts under the pseudonym “Old Hubert” and was a member in two political associations – the „Society for Constitutional Information“ and the „London Corresponding Society United for the Reform of Parliamentary Representation“.

Parkinson’s other interests were also diversified: since he was young, he was interested in the natural sciences chemistry, geology and palaeontology. He owned a large collection of minerals and fossils. Parkinson wrote books about some scientific topics too, for instance “The Chemical Pocket-Book” or “Organic Remains of a Former World” in three parts, which he wrote from 1804 to 1811. Parkinson even draw the illustrations for his book by himself. The trilogy is today still one of the most important works for the development of the English palaeontology. Parkinson was also co-founder of the Geological Society of London in 1797.

Through the years, Parkinson wrote several medical books too, like a paper about gout (1805) and an article about appendicitis (1812). His most famous essay was written in 1817: “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”. Although the book was comparatively thin and only six cases, from whom just three where actually patients of Parkinson, where described within, he described the symptoms very precisely:

“Involuntary tremulous motion, with lessened muscular power, in parts not in action and even when supported; with a propensity to bend the trunk forwards, and to pass from a walking to a running pace: the senses and intellects being uninjured”

Parkinson chose the name “Shaking Palsy” for the pathology he described because of the conspicuous symptom of rest tremor.

Like it is often the case with scientists, James Parkinson did not receive much acknowledgement during his life time. The renaming of the “Shaking Palsy” to Parkinson’s disease established itself in 1884, when the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) told his students about “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy” and called it “Maladie de Parkinson” (French for Parkinson’s disease).

Today James Parkinson is much more known because of his discovery of the Parkinson’s disease than he was during his times. In memory of James Parkinson, April the 11th was declared to be the World-Parkinson’s-Day in 1997 by the European Parkinson's Disease Association (EAPD) and the World Health Organization (WHO).