James Parkinson

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James Parkinson
Born 11 April 1755 (1755-04-11)
Shoreditch, London
Died 21 December 1824 (1824-12-22) (aged 69)
Cause of death
Nationality British
Ethnicity White British
Occupation Surgeon
Known for First description of Parkinson's disease
Spouse(s) Mary Dale
Children 7

James Parkinson FGS (11 April 1755 – 21 December 1824)[1] was an English apothecary surgeon, geologist, paleontologist, and political activist. He is most famous for his 1817 work, An Essay on the Shaking Palsy[2] in which he was the first to describe "paralysis agitans", a condition that would later be renamed Parkinson's disease by Jean-Martin Charcot.

Early life[edit]

James Parkinson was born in Shoreditch, London, England. He was the son of John Parkinson, an apothecary and surgeon practising in Hoxton Square in London. In 1784 Parkinson was approved by the City of London Corporation as a surgeon. He never became a physician, as many mistakenly call him.

On 21 May 1783, he married Mary Dale, with whom he subsequently had eight children. Soon after he was married, Parkinson succeeded his father in his practice in 1 Hoxton Square. He believed that any worthwhile surgeon should know shorthand, at which he was adept.


In addition to his flourishing medical practice, Parkinson had an avid interest in geology and paleontology, as well as the politics of the day.

Parkinson was a strong advocate for the under-privileged, and an outspoken critic of the Pitt-government. His early career was marred by his being involved in a variety of social and revolutionary causes, and some historians think it most likely that he was a strong proponent for the French Revolution. He published nearly twenty political pamphlets in the post-French Revolution period, while Britain was in political chaos. Writing under his own name and his pseudonym "Old Hubert", he called for radical social reforms.

First page of Parkinson's classical essay on shaking palsy

Parkinson called for 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. In 1794 his membership in the organization led to his being examined under oath before William Pitt and the Privy Council to give evidence about a trumped-up plot to assassinate King George III. He refused to testify regarding his part in the popgun plot, until he was certain he would not be forced to incriminate himself. The plan was to use a poisoned dart fired from a pop-gun to bring the king's reign to a premature conclusion. No charges were ever brought against Parkinson but several of his friends languished in prison for many months before being acquitted.


Parkinson turned away from his tumultuous political career, and between 1799 and 1807 published several medical works, including a work on gout in 1805. He was also responsible for early writings on [ruptured appendix] in English medical literature.

Parkinson was the first person to systematically describe six individuals with symptoms of the disease that bears his name. He reported on three of his own patients and three persons who he saw in the street.[3] Jean-Martin Charcot coined the term "Parkinson's disease" some 60 years later.

Parkinson was also interested in improving the general health and well-being of the population. He wrote several medical doctrines that exposed a similar zeal for the health and welfare of the people that was expressed by his political activism. He was a crusader for legal protection for the mentally ill, as well as their doctors and families.

In 1812 Parkinson assisted his son with the first described case of appendicitis in English, and the first instance in which perforation was shown to be the cause of death.


On the left: Parkinson's fossils. This large cut and polished ammonite, Parkinsonia parkinsoni is named after James Parkinson. He formed a fine collection of fossils described in his book Organic Remains of a Former World, which gave detailed accounts of vast periods of geological time. It provided a key reference for later authors.
Fossilized turtle puppigerus found in the London Clay on the Isle of Sheppey and named for Parkinson, collection Teylers Museum

Parkinson's interest gradually turned from medicine to nature, specifically the relatively new field of geology, and paleontology. He began collecting specimens and drawings of fossils in the latter part of the eighteenth century. He took his children and friends on excursions to collect and observe fossil plants and animals. His attempts to learn more about fossil identification and interpretation were frustrated by a lack of available literature in English, and so he took the decision to improve matters by writing his own introduction to the study of fossils.

In 1804 the first volume of his Organic Remains of a Former World was published. Gideon Mantell praised it as "the first attempt to give a familiar and scientific account of fossils". A second volume was published in 1808, and a third in 1811. Parkinson illustrated each volume and his daughter Emma coloured some of the plates. The plates were later re-used by Gideon Mantell. In 1822 Parkinson published the shorter "Elements of Oryctology: an Introduction to the Study of Fossil Organic Remains, especially of those found in British Strata".

Parkinson also contributed several papers to William Nicholson’s "A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts", and in the first, second, and fifth volumes of the "Geological Society’s Transactions". He wrote a single volume 'Outlines of Orytology' in 1822, a more popularise work.

On 13 November 1807, Parkinson and other distinguished gentlemen met at the Freemasons' Tavern in London. The gathering included such great names as Sir Humphry Davy, Arthur Aikin and George Bellas Greenough. This was to be the first meeting of the Geological Society of London.[4]

Parkinson belonged to a school of thought, Catastrophism, that concerned itself with the belief that the Earth's geology and biosphere were shaped by recent large-scale cataclysms. He cited the Noachian deluge of Genesis as an example, and he firmly believed that creation and extinction were processes guided by the hand of God. His view on Creation was that each 'day' was actually a much longer period, that lasted perhaps tens of thousands of years in length.

He died on 21 December 1824 after a stroke that interfered with his speech, bequeathing his houses in Langthorne to his sons and wife and his apothecary's shop to his son, John. His collection of organic remains was given to his wife and much of it went on to be sold in 1827, a catalogue of the sale has never been found. He was buried at St. Leonard's Church, Shoreditch.[5]


Parkinson's life is commemorated with a stone tablet inside the church of St Leonard's, Shoreditch, where he was a member of the congregation; the exact site of his grave is not known and his body may lie in the crypt or in the churchyard. In addition, a blue plaque at 1 Hoxton Square, marks the site of his home. Several fossils were also named after him. An image has not yet been found and a photograph, sometimes published and attributed to him, is of a dentist of the same name: our James Parkinson died before photography was invented.[6]

World Parkinson's Day is held each year on his birthday, April 11.[7]



  1. ^ Lewis, Cherry; Knell, Simon J. (2009). The making of the Geological Society of London. Geological Society. pp. 62 & 83. ISBN 978-1-86239-277-9. 
  2. ^ An Essay on the Shaking Palsy
  3. ^ McCall, Bridget (January 2003). "Dr. James Parkinson 1755-1824". Parkinson's Diseas Society. Archived from [http://www.parkinsons.org.uk/shared_asp_files/uploadedfiles/%7B16DEE646-F585-4AC2-A1D4-AA40D22ABD5F%7D_jamesparkinson.pdf[dead link] the original] on 2 February 2006. Retrieved 10 September 2009. 
  4. ^ History of the Geological Society, UK.
  5. ^ Lewis, Cherry; Knell, Simon J. (2009). The making of the Geological Society of London. Geological Society. p. 83. ISBN 978-1-86239-277-9. 
  6. ^ Gardner-Thorpe, Christopher. James Parkinson (1755-1824). Exeter.
  7. ^ http://www.parkinsons.co.za/breaking-news/17-world-parkinsons-day

Further reading[edit]

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