Biography of James Parkinson
"English born, English bred, forgotten by the English and the world at large, such was the fate of James Parkinson".
J. G. Rowntree, 1912
James Parkinson was the son of John Parkinson, an apothecary and surgeon practicing in Hoxton Square, London. Where James studied is not known, but in 1784 his name appeared on a list of surgeons approved by the Corporation of London. On May 21, 1783, he married Mary Dale of Hoxton Square; they had six children. James eventually succeeded his father in his practice in Hoxton Square.
In 1785 Parkinson attended a course of lectures by John Hunter on the principles and practices of surgery, taking them down in shorthand and afterwards transcribing them. They were published in 1833 by his son J. W. K. Parkinson, F.R.C.S. unter the title of Hunterian Reminiscences.
In 1780 Parkinson published, anonymously, Obervations on Dr. Smith's Philosophy of Physic, a critical appraisal of Smith's theories. With the exception of a brief account of the effects of lightning(1789), Parkinson published nothing more in the sciences until his political and social activities lessened near the end of the century. His medical practice continued to flourish, however, and during this period he became interested in geology and paleontology.
A political radical and a popgun plot
An outspoken critic of the Pitt-government, Parkinson was a strong advocate of the under-privileged and probably also of the French Revolution. Parkinson's early career was overshadowed by his involvement in a variety of social and revolutionary causes. He published numerous pamphletes under the pen-name of Old Hubert.
Parkinson advocated reform and representation of the people in the House of Commons, the institution of annual parliaments, and universal suffrage. He was a member of several secret political societies, including the London Corresponding Society for Reform of Parliamentary Representation in 1792. In 1794 the society was charged with complicity in an alleged plot to murder King George III - "the popgun plot" as it was popularly called, because it was alleged that the plan was to fire a poisoned dart from a pop gun at the King in the theatre.
In October 1794 Parkinson was examined on oath before the privy council in connection with the plot. He admitted being a member of the Committe of Correspondence of the London Corresponding Society, and of the Constitutional Society, and also that he was the author of Revolutions without Bloodshed; or Reformation preferable to Revolt, a penny pamphlet published «for the benefit of the wives and children of the persons imprisoned on charges of High Treason», and of “A Vindication of the London Corresponding Society.” In Assassination of the King: or the Pop-gun Plot unravelled, by John Smith, one of the accused, is a letter from Parkinson, dated Hoxton Square, August 29, 1795, detailing his examination.
Politician turned physician
Between 1799 and 1807 Parkinson published numerous small medical works of particular interest to the profession. These included a work on gout in 1805 and a report on a perforated and gangrenous appendix with peritonitis in 1812. The latter is probably the earliest description of that condition in the English medical literature.
In 1799 a work called Medical Admonitions was also published. It was the first in a series of popular medical workss by Parkinson aimed toward the improvement of the general health and well-being of the population. It is likely that these works represented a continuation of the same zeal for the welfare of the people that was expressed by his political activism. His humanitarianism appeared again in 1811, when he crusaded for better safegueards in regulating madhouses and for legal protection for the mental patients, their keepers, doctors, and families.
Parkinson's most important medical work was An Essay on the Shaking Palsy (1817). In this short esssay Parkinson established the disease as a clinical entity. Sorting through a variety of palsied conditions, which he had observed throughout his career, Parkinson gave the classic, albeit in modern terms limited, clinical description of the illness: "Involuntary tremolous motion, with lessened muscular power, in parts not in action and even when supported; with a propensity to bend the trunk forewards, and to pass from a walking to a running pace: the senses and intellect being uninjured." Four decades later Jean-Martin Charcot added rigidity to Parkinson's excellent clinical description and attached the name Parkinson's disease to the syndrome.
In 1812 Parkinson assisted his son, who was a surgeon, with the first description of a case of appendicitis in English, and the first instance in which perforation was shown to be the cause of death.
Physician turned natural scientist
Parkinsons field of interest gradually changed from medicine to nature. Sometimes in the late eighteenth century he began collecting specimens and drawings of fossils, as appears from an appeal for assistance at the end of the second edition of his Chemical Pocket-book (1801), a guide for the student and layman; it reflected his interests in medicine, geology, and fossils. This was a pleasant avocation for him, and he enjoyed making short trips with his children and his friends to collect or observe fossil plants and animals. In the second edition of the Chemical Pocket-Book (1801) he made a public appeal for information on fossils. As he attempted to learn more about their identification and interpretation he discovered that there was little help availabe in English works. He decided, therefore, to write an introduction to the study of fossils.
In 1804 appeared the first volume of his Organic Remains of the Former World, which Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), in 1850, described as «the first attempt to give a familiar and scientific account . . . accompanied by figures of fossils, ‘a memorable event in the history of British Palaeontology’». The second and third volumes appeared in 1808 and 1811 respectively, when he was still practicing medicine at 1 Hoxton Square. This, his chief work, was followed in 1822 by a small one, Elements of Oryctology: an Introduction to the Study of Fossil Organic Remains, especially of those found in British Strata.
The volumes of Organic Remains were well illustrated with many plates (some in color) done by Parkinson. The plates were later republished in Gideon Mantell's Pictorial Atlas of Fossil Remains (1850). This work was a major contribution to the development of British paleontology, particularly as a thorough and usable compilation of information on British fossils.
In God we trust
Parkinson was opposed to the Huttonian (James Hutton, Scottish geologist, chemist, naturalist) theory of the earth. Hutton originated one of the fundamental principles of geology, the so-called uniformitarianism, which explains the features of the Earth’s crust by means of natural processes over geologic time. Hutton claimed that the geological processes could fully explain the current landforms all over the world, and no biblical explanations were necessary in this regard.
Parkinson, in studying the relation of fossils to their strata, was convinced that the creation of life had taken a long time and had proceeded in an orderly fashion, but in keeping with scriptural history. After the creation of primary rocks, vegetables were created, then animals of the water and air, followed by land animals and man. He emphasized the Biblical Flood in some cases, but creation and extinction were continuing processses guided by the hand of God. To reconcile his concept of geological time with theology, he adopted from some of his contemporaries the notion that each day of creation represented a long period of time. Parkinson was adamantly opposed to any theory of gradual, natural evolution. The "creative power," he argued, worked continually through new creations.
On November 13, 1797, Parkinson met with several of his friends, including Sir Humphrey Davy and George Greenough, at the Freemason's Tavern. Together they formed the Geological Society of London. Parkinson was a contributor to the first volume (1811) of the society's Transactions with a detailed study of the London basin entitled "Observations on Some of the Strata in the Neighbourhood of London, and on the Fossil Remains Contained in Them."
In 1822 Parkinson published Outlines of Oryctology, which he considered a supplement to Reverend W. D. Conybeare and L. Phillips' Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales, With an Introductory Compendium of the General Principles of That Science, and Comparative Views of the Structure of Foreign Countries (1822).
It is similar to Organic Remains, with some additions and changes based on newer developments in geology. He adopted catastrophism and viewed the creation of life in a sequence and manner like that outlined by Cuvier.
Besides his books he was the author of several geological papers in William Nicholson’s (1753-1815) A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts (London) 1809-1812, and in the first, second, and fifth volumes of the Geological Society’s Transactions, 1811-1818.
Although Parkinson's disease is one of the best known medical eponyms, Parkinson himself received little attention from his English-speaking collegues, until an article written by the American J. G. Rowntree in 1912 appeared in volume 23 of the Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, titled: "English born, English bred, forgotten by the English and the world at large, such was the fate of James Parkinson".
James Parkinson died in Kingsland Road on December 21, 1824. His son, J. W. K. Parkinson practiced medicine in Hoxton and later in Islington near London. He was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
We thank Colin Wilson for information submitted.