Something different – recognising a birthday

A special day: World Parkinson’s day!

The day falls on the anniversary of a particular birthday – that of James Parkinson.

On the 11th April 1755, one James Parkinson was born to John and Mary Parkinson at no.1 Hoxton Square. He was baptised on the 29th of that same month in St Leonard’s church (Shoreditch) – the same church where he would marry and also be buried.

Three interesting facts about James:

FACT 1. – This is not James Parkinson:


There are countless website online that will tell you differently, but – trust us – this is definitely not James Parkinson. We know this for three reason:

  1. The gentleman in this photo is in a photo – James Parkinson died in 1824, 2 years before the oldest photo on record was taken (‘View from the Window at Le Gras’ created by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827 at his estate, Le Gras, in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes).
  2. The gentleman is wearing clothing dating from the 1850s onwards.
  3. We’ve discovered who the man in the photo is. To confuse the matter, his name IS James Parkinson, but he is James Cumine Parkinson (born 1st February, 1832, at Killough, near Belfast, Northern Ireland; died 13th July, 1887, at the Iron Pot Lighthouse, Hobart, Australia).

He is definitely not James Parkinson.

Sadly, we have no idea what the great man looked like. We have portraits of most of his contemporaries, but no likeness has ever been associated with James.

The closest we get is this picture from one of Parkinson’s book, ‘The Villager’s Friend and Physician’:

L0068467 The Villager's Friend and Physician

Source: Wellcome Images.

It has been suggested that the physician in the middle, lecturing the village people, is James Parkinson. The theory has it that the metal worker who made the plate for this image was a good friend of James and he wanted to produce a likeness of the man. Despite putting all of his considerable artistic abilities to the task, I think you’ll agree that it doesn’t really give us much to go by.

FACT 2. – James did not name the disease after himself.

Parkinson’s disease was actually given it’s name 70 years after James died. It was named by the great French physician Jean-Martin Charcot:


Jean-Martin Charcot (Source: Wikipedia)

Widely considered the ‘Father of modern neurology’, the importance of Charcot’s contribution to modern medicine is rarely in doubt. One only needs to read the names of the students that he taught at the famous Salpêtrière Hospital (in Paris) to appreciate that everyone who became someone in the field of Neurology passed through his classes.

These names include Sigmund Freud, Joseph Babinski, Pierre Janet, Pierre Marie, Albert Londe, Charles-Joseph Bouchard, Georges Gilles de la Tourette, Alfred Binet (inventor of the first intelligence test), Jean Leguirec, Albert Pitres, etc. The great William James – one of the founding fathers of Psychology – came all the way from America to sit in the classes. Charcot was one of the most revered instructors in Europe, immortalised in a painting by André Brouillet:


A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière (“Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière“)
by André Brouillet (Source: Wikipedia)

Between 1868 and 1881, Charcot focused much of his attention on what was called ‘paralysis agitans’ (the name that one James Parkinson gave the condition in his ‘Essay on the Shaking Palsy’). Charcot rejected the label ‘Paralysis Agitans’, however, suggesting that the former was misleading in that patients were not markedly weak and do not necessarily have tremor (Charcot, 1872). Rather than Paralysis Agitans, Charcot suggested that Maladie de Parkinson (or Parkinson’s disease) would be a more appropriate name, bestowing credit to the man who first described the condition (Charcot must have been a nice guy as he made a similar gesture with Tourette’s disease, naming it after one of his own students (Georges Gilles de la Tourette) who used the name ‘maladie des tics‘ to describe the nine patients he had studied while working with Charcot).

And so it was with this small gesture that – 70 years after our James had passed away – Charcot made the man famous.

FACT 3. – James Parkinson almost became an Aussie.

Year before writing his ‘Essay on the Shaking Palsy’, James was something of a political radical, writing politically charged pamphlets under the pseudonym ‘Old Hubert’. His activities got him caught up in an event called the ‘Pop gun plot’ in 1795.

This madcap scheme involved five members of the London Corresponding Society – a society that James was a member – who were plotting to assassinate King George III with a poison tipped dart (please note that James was not among the five potential assassins). All five conspirators were arrested after an investigation by the Privy Council, and James Parkinson appeared for the defence both before the Privy Council and at the trial.

Parkinson had refused to take the oath at the Privy Council’s enquiry until he had an assurance that he would only be asked questions regarding the accused and their connections with the supposed plot and nothing else.

Their Lordships on the council were extremely angry with his refusal to take the oath. This was not how things worked. The Attorney-General (the person who was to put most of the questions to the witness), however, then intervened and said, “You will not be asked to criminate yourself”.

Despite these assurances, questions were still put to James that could have had him incriminate himself. This situation led to a curious set of back-and-forths between James Parkinson and William Pitt the younger, such as:

Mr Pitt: Sir, you cannot object to this question. 

Mr Parkinson: I conceive that I can, and do on this ground also. That you ought not to put such questions, the refusing to answer which will imply crimination. 

James was eventually threatened with ‘transportation’ (a free 7 year trip to one of the prison colonies in sunny old Australia), but he still refused to incriminate himself or other members of the society.

He was eventually released without charge and perhaps wisely, he ceased publishing any more political pamphlets. The case progressed against arrested members of the society until the chief prosecution witness died before the trial could get started. Without any further evidence, the trial eventual collapsed and the five members were released in late 1796.


Happy 261st Birthday James!

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