Monday, April 11, 2016

April 11, 1755

Today is International Parkinson's Disease day.

Parkinson's Disease is something I deal with a fair amount. As most know, it's a progressive neurological disease typically characterized by tremor, imbalance, and slowness of movement.

And that's all I'm going to say about it here.

So why did I bring it up? Because the man behind the disease is fascinating. Mostly remembered now only by the neurological disorder he described, there was a lot more to him. Probably one of the more remarkable figures of his (or any) time.

James Parkinson was born on this day in 1755. His father, John, was a London pharmacist and physician. While a medical student, in 1777, James and his father received medals for successfully resuscitating a man who'd hung himself.

During medical school he wrote a pamphlet about his experiences called "The Medical Pupil." Perhaps this could be seen as an early example today's med student blogs. In words that still ring true 240 years later, he opined that "a sympathetic concern, and a tender interest for the sufferings of others, ought to characterize all those who engage themselves in the profession, the object of which should be to mitigate, or remove, one great portion of the calamities to which humanity is subject.”

Preach it, brother James.

In 1784, upon John's death, James took over the practice. It was a successful one, treating rich and poor alike. He also served as the supervising physician at a large local mental institution. He married Mary Dale, and they had a total of 8 children, 6 of whom survived to adulthood.

Parkinson was politically active and, for the time, radical. He strongly supported equal rights for the poor (OMG!), voting rights for women (gasp!), and the inclusion of "ordinary citizens" as a major portion of government. He campaigned extensively for decent treatment and legal protection of the mentally ill, realizing that those with serious illnesses were often incapable of recognizing their actions.

He wanted annual elections to make sure parliament turned over with "new minds" frequently, and supported the French Revolution across the channel. He wrote and published numerous political pamphlets, but to protect his family and practice wrote under the pen name "Old Hubert." When a political group he was involved in was falsely accused of plotting to assassinate King George III (the Pop-Gun Plot), Parkinson refused to testify against his friends. Eventually all charges were dropped when it was revealed they were trumped-up by political opponents.

During his medical career he published a treatise on gout and went on to write the first English language description of acute appendicitis. He and his son (also James, and also a doctor) were the first to prove that death from appendicitis was due to visceral perforation and infection.

As a member of the Association of Apothecaries (later its president) he saw a key act passed in 1815 that, for the first time, regulated the standards to which doctors and pharmacists had to be trained. He was also instrumental in passing laws concerning apprenticeships, setting goals for training and protecting the apprentice from abuse.

He wrote medical & science columns for popular newspapers on such varied subjects as chemistry, nosebleeds, and hypochondria, and also published scientific papers on topics as disparate as lightning, fossils, and geology.

In the 1810's, based on observations of both his own patients and  individuals he'd seen walking around London, he first recognized the characteristic tremor and shuffling gait of the disease that today has his name. He also differentiated between the types of tremors commonly seen - a key diagnostic point still used by neurologists today.

In 1817 he published his landmark piece "An Essay on the Shaking Palsy" in which he described the main features of the disorder. The accuracy of the paper in describing the condition is made all the more remarkable by the fact that neurology as a field didn't exist at the time. Jean-Martin Charcot, the Frenchman who would go on to found my medical specialty, was born 8 years later in 1825. It wasn't until 1877, 60 years after Parkinson's essay, that Charcot himself named the condition Parkinson's Disease. His English colleague, William Gowers, agreed with Charcot's eponym.

Sadly, this discovery obscured many of his equally remarkable accomplishments.

Besides those interests mentioned above, Parkinson's scientific curiosity led him in many directions. He examined rock specimens at length and wrote a breakthrough treatise on the sediment patterns and fossils seen through the British Isles, recognizing the organization and significance of different rock strata.

He authored 2 books on fossils from around the world, describing them as earlier stages of currently living animals (Darwin's theory of evolution wouldn't be published for another 40 years). He also did his own black & white illustrations for the books, while his daughter did the color plates.

A species of Ammonite, a long-extinct relative of the modern octopus and squid, was named after him. So was an ancient branch of the turtle family. He has the unusual distinction among scientists of having both a disease and fossils attached to his name.

In 1823 the Royal College of Surgeons presented him with an award for his extensive body of work, noting “The fruits of your exertions are distinguished by the stamp of simplicity and truth. They express the most laudable zeal in the pursuit and the promulgation of knowledge, for the benefit of mankind.”

James Parkinson died on December 21, 1824 of a stroke, very close to where he was born and spent his entire life and practice. He was buried at St. Leonard's church, though no stone was placed and the exact location of his body is unknown.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful! I had no idea about the great man's other accomplishments. Thank you for informing me :)

Moose said...


What is a truck?

Joanie said...

Cool. Thanks for the interesting information. Would like hearing someday about why you chose neurology as your specialty.

Stacey Gordon said...

Thank You!

SLU / AmC said...

I just love these historical stories. Thank you for sharing them with us!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

Of course, that reminds me of the joke with the man and the two ladies in the nursing home, but will let it pass.

Packer said...

His bed side manner was nonpareil.

Seriously, good stuff, very interesting.

bobbie said...

Great post!! I love reading about old medical inventions, treatments and such ~ even better to read about the people behind them!

PS ~ love your new "calling card" (on Twitter); I wonder if I could get Vista to print me some!!

Ms. Donna said...

Thank you. We say his name with dread because of the disease, but perhaps we should celebrate instead.

BigFire said...

Wonderful use of Buckaroo Banzai screenshot to honor Dr. Parkinson. Given that Dr. Banzai is a neurosurgeon, rock'n'roller, quantum mechanic physic, and many many other thing, this is highly appropriate.

Lizard said...

fascinating... and the Buckaroo Banzai shot makes it even better. Love to know that there are others who remember that movie, too.

Anonymous said...

No matter what our medical specialty, we all stand on the shoulders of giants; thanks for sharing the story of yours.

Anonymous said...

Was probably a yak herder, too. However, that wasn't mentioned in the piece

Ivan Ilyich said...

Joanie, my guess is that a doctor chooses neurology because it's not so cut and dried. It is more mental, more challenging because neuropathis are not well understood in detail. The differential diagnosis alone is challenging, and even given a correct diagnosis (to current medical standads) the treatment is not cookbook procedure. And you don't have to deal with blood. It's a thinking man's game, as is writing. It makes perfect sense.

Anonymous said...

One might suppose that his mother didn't mind too much that he came home with holes in his pockets. But the bit about where his burial place is not known, when you consider that in his legacy he left quite a body of work.

Thanks Dr. G.! This scientist does indeed seem one of those giants in disciplined curiosity and discovery.

When I was in high school or maybe first year college, one of the math instructors used to relay some of the more interesting biographical bits about the mathematicians behind the theorem. The lives of these men and women made the subject more interesting and much more memorable, when considering that this one had a ferocious temper, or that one did such and such or that one lost his nose in a dual and forthwith had nose jobs that sometimes fell off during church services and rolled down the marble tiles.

Anonymous said...

It is better to be hung than to be hanged. The latter requires a noose; the former, good genes (or a vacuum pump?).

I'll see myself out...

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