James: The man behind the disease (Part 3)


This post is the third in our four part series on the life of Mr James Parkinson, in observance of 200 years since his first description of Parkinson’s disease.

Here we will look at the bulk of James’ adult life – not only his medical related activities, but also all of the ‘other stuff’ (for which he is not remembered). This is not intended to be an exhaustive history of his life, I am simply trying to share a brief overview of what one amazing man achieved with his life.

In addition, I will include some of the global events that were occurring during this time to provide a bit of context not only to the epoch that James lived in, but as to how those events helped to shape who he was.


The return of Benjamin Franklin to Philadelphia in 1785. Source: Wikimedia

At the end of our first post about James Parkinson, it was 1785 and the recently married James was the sole medical practitioner at “Parkinson and Son”. His first son,  John William Keys Parkinson, was born that year (11th July – for more on James’ family, please click here). AND Perhaps given the weight of these responsibilities, combined with his disappointment regarding his medical training thus far, James sought out further education.

He found it in the form of evening lectures provided by the great Scottish surgeon, John Hunter. Between October 1785 and April 1786, James attended these session and we should all be very grateful that he did.


John Hunter. Source: Wikipedia

These lectures were conducted in Hunter’s operating theatre in Castle Street, Leicester Square. They were approximately one hour in length, held three times per week and in all there were 68 of them.

And we are very fortunate today that James attended these lectures as we only know of their content because James wrote them down verbatim in shorthand (his notes were later published by his son John William Keys Parkinson – “Hunterian Reminiscences, Being The Substance Of A Course Of Lectures On The Principles And Practice Of Surgery Delivered By John Hunter In The Year 1785″). These notes were invaluable given that Hunter’s own notes were later destroyed by fire.

It was during these lectures that James was introduced to John Hunter’s collection of fossils and another of the great interest of James’ life began. While most people who know of James Parkinson associate him with the field of medicine, his contributions to the fields of geology and paleontology during his life time were far greater than those to medicine.

And truth be known, James is still something of a rockstar to geologists and paleontologists (no pun intended).


Source: Lindahall

His efforts to further his medical knowledge and his career demonstrated themselves in other ways as well. In February 1787, James presented a paper ‘Some accounts of the effects of lightning’ to the Medical Society. The paper gave an account of two men being struck by lightning in Crabtree Row, Shoreditch (near to where James lived) during a storm. James treated both men (with bleeding, hot brandy and wet flannels). Both men responded well to the treatment and recovered. One month later (23rd April), James is elected to the fellowship of the Medical Society of London.

The young radical

It is evident that as a young man James Parkinson was a creature of his time. He lived in an age of revolutions. Firstly the American revolutionary war (1783), then the beginning of the French Revolution begins (1789). It was a period of great social upheaval and it would appear that as a young man he got caught up in it.

His political activities may also have resulted from changes in his immediate world. When James was born, Hoxton (the village where he lived his whole life) was simply a scattering of houses, orchards and market gardens that lay approximately half a mile from one of the north-east gates of London. Hoxton Square (James lived almost his whole life in no.1 Hoxton Square) was considered a very fashionable area and young James would have grown up surrounded by open, reasonably well-to-do areas.

James was born at the onset of the industrial revolution and with London prospering there was an enormous increase in the number of inhabitants. As more and more of London’s real estate became dedicated to business purposes, the inhabitants began spilling out into the surrounding areas. With transportation still limited to foot and horse, the people who worked in London needed to stay close to their place of employment, thus areas like Hoxton began to fill up rapidly. In 1788, there were 34,700 people living in Hoxton (in 5730 houses), which grew to 109,200 people in 1851 (in 15,433 houses).

During James’s life, Hoxton went through a radical transition. The large homes, orchards and gardens of his youth gave way to factories and over-crowding. And as a result, the ‘Parkinson and Son’ practise changed from serving a middle class clientele (during the time of his father) to dealing predominantly with the working class. This obviously impacted James, but he was not alone. He was one of numerous doctors (including Henry Cline (1750-1827) and Astley Cooper (1768-1841)) who vocally supported the idea of parliamentary reform and extension of suffrage.

Then in 1791, Thomas Paine published ‘Rights of Man, Part I’ as a refute to conservative Edmund Burke’s counter revolutionary ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ (1790).


Source: Seaofliberty

The book impacted many important figures of the time, and may have been one of the influencing factors that stimulated James to join the London Corresponding Society (LCS) in 1792 (shortly after it was founded).

The LCS agitated for the enfranchisement of all adult males and addition constitutional reforms, its membership peaked at 5000 members, and it continued to be active until it was finally suppressed by the government of William Pitt the Younger in 1799. It was also an association that James may have come to regret given how events were to unfold.

Cartoon by James Gillray; published 20 April 1798. Source: CivilSocietyfutures

In the wake of the French Revolution, many in Britain felt very sympathetic to their revolutionary comrades in France. They were subject to laws made by a government that the vast majority of them had no voice in electing (only 2 per cent of the population could vote). Many were not paid a living wage and heavy taxes were imposed to finance wars that they did not support. And they saw men of influence appointing their friends to positions of power and giving themselves generous wages and pensions – paid for from the public purse (one could be forgiven for wondering how much has actually changed).

There was no formal method for folks to register their discontent. And this vacuum gave rise to political societies like the LCS and individual efforts by prolific writers of political pamphlets. Prolific writers like one James Parkinson.

The year 1793 saw the execution of Louis XVI in France. Less impactful on the global stage was the publication of James’ first political pamphlets.

Pamphlets, plural. Not two or three.

No, sir, if there is one thing you should take home about James Parkinson: he was an extremely prolific writer.

And prolific really doesn’t do the man credit. It is difficult to fathom how he found time to be a busy medical practitioner, family man and political radical (meeting in secretive locations), AND still have time to write defies belief. Especially given the writing tools of the age (it makes crank bloggers like myself look pathetic by comparison!).

In 1793, James Parkinson’s wrote five (yes five) political pamphlets, all published under the pseudonym of ‘Old Hubert’. They included:


Pearls cast before swine, by Edmund Burke, scraped together by Old Hubert.


An address to the Hon. Edmund Burke from the swinish multitude.


Knave’s-Acre Association : Resolutions adopted at a meeting of placemen pensioners 

Now, the government, which was terrified that such publications would kick-off a French-style revolution, issued a Royal Proclamation calling on the magistrates to seek out the authors, publishers and distributors of such works and punish them accordingly. To make their jobs easier, the magistrates set up networks of spies, who were instructed to infiltrate the growing number of political societies and quietly report back on their activities. Those found to be encouraging sedition, could have been tried with the risk of facing years of imprisonment, even transportation to Australia.

Perhaps encouraged by the government’s actions, in 1794 James published Revolution Without Bloodshed. It was James’ most outspoken piece of writing, in which he listed 24 benefits that reforms of parliament would bring. They included:

  • “Taxes might be proportioned to the abilities of those on whom they are levied, and not made to fall heavier on the poor than the rich…”
  • “…due PROVISION be made for the aged and disabled…”
  • “Families that are comparatively starving might be exempted from contributing [taxes] …”
  • “Workmen might no longer be punished for uniting to obtain an increase of wages …”
  • “Differences [in] RELIGIOUS MATTERS might not exclude men from enjoying the same benefits with their Fellow-Citizens”

Revolution Without Bloodshed ended with Old Hubert writing ‘TRAITORS! TRAITORS! TRAITORS!’ about the government.

Revolutionary stuff huh?

Shortly after this document was published, four member of the LCS – John Smith, George Higgins, Paul Thomas Le Maitre and Thomas Upton – were arrested in an alleged ‘Popgun plot’ assassination attempt on the King. The cooked-up case involved three members of the London Corresponding Society apparently planning to assassinate King George III using a poison dart that would be fired from an air gun.

Source: Wikipedia

The charges seem to have been largely a fiction, possibly with the goal of simply taking the main players in the LCS out of the pressure cooker environment and scaring some of the remaining members into silence. Following the arrests the Privy Council was requested to determine if there was sufficient evidence for a trial. Rather recklessly, Jame Parkinson immediately informed them that he was willing, under oath, to provide evidence that the arrested individuals were innocence.

I say ‘reckless’ because in the prevailing political climate, this was an extremely brave thing to do. If James was unable to convince the Privy Council with his testimony, he ran the very real risk of being implicated in the plot himself which could have seen him being arrested and ultimately ‘transported’ (shipped out to one of the prison colonies – imagine if James had become an Aussie! Perish the thought).

During the interrogation, the audacity with which James answered (and didn’t answer) questions put forward by the prime minister (William Pitt the Younger) and his fellow Lords of the Privy Council was striking. While he audaciously refused to answer many questions that might have incriminated him, he was forced to reveal he was the author of Revolutions without Bloodshed.

Fearing that the arrest of a well-known figure like Parkinson would encourage revolutionary fervour, the Privy council eventually allowed James to go home. Brave or not, all of this activity appears to have taken a toll on James. Following these events, and as if to put a nail in his age of radicalist activities, James published ‘Vindication of the London Corresponding Society’.

It was his last political article.

Less revolutionary activities

In 1799, James took on the less exciting role of a Trustee of the Vestry for the Libery of Hoxton. And he turned his writing to more occupation-related topics, publishing ‘Medical Abominations’ and then ‘The Hospital Pupil’, ‘The Chemical Pocket-book’, and ‘The Villages’ Friend and Physician’ the next year.

The ‘Villages’ Friend and Physician’ publication has a special place in the hearts of JP aficionados. Inside the cover of the book, there is an image of a doctor speaking to a group of villagers.

L0068467 The Villager's Friend and Physician

Source: Wellcome Images.

In her excellent book “James Parkinson, 1755-1824: From Apothecary to General Practitioner“, Shirley Roberts wrote that other sources have proposed that the doctor is a likeness of James Parkinson. Unfortunately Shirley Roberts made no reference to the sources of the proposal, but it is as close as we get to having a likeness of the man, as James died before the first photographs were taken and there is no recorded painting of him.

In 1802, young John WK Parkinson followed his father and became James’s apprentice, continuing the ‘Parkinson & Son’ tradition for another generation. That same year the first Factory act is passed in the British Parliament. It limited a child’s working day to just 12 hours.

This was another area of his life where James had an impact that is not generally recognised. In 1803, he convinced the Parish Trustees of the need for greater control over the care of child apprentices. In 1821, approximately 49% of the workforce was under 20; the average age at which children in England began working was just ten years of age. And the treatment of many of these children was very poor.

In late 1802, an apprenticed child was murdered in a neighbouring parish to where James lived (Shoreditch). The child had been killed by her mistress.

The event had shocked James into action.

In the January 28th (1803) minutes of the ‘Board of Trustees of the poor of the parish of St Leonards’ (of which James was a member) it is written that:

“Mr Parkinson gave notice of his intention of bringing forward a motion at the next meeting that the state of the apprenticed poor be taken into consideration”

And on 11th March (1803), James proposed a resolution. He called for the board of Trustees to begin reviewing the conditions under which children in the parish lived and worked – in particular, the apprenticed ones. No such inspectors existed at the time and it should be noted that it was not until the passing of one of the following Factory Acts (1833), that the post of factory inspectors was first created. Our James was well and truly ahead of his time.

James asked the board to nominate members who would begin to make regular visits to the homes of ‘the defenceless apprenticed poor at the mercies of their masters and mistresses’. The resolution was found to be justified when the committee gave its first report four months later (19th July, 1803). During their first inspection, the volunteer inspectors were informed of a young girl, Jane Lang, who ‘was apprenticed in the year 1799 to John Conway of No. 119 Petticoat Lane, Whitechapel, and was seduced by her master, who , the committee are informed, was a married man and the father of six children – she proving with child, the master ran away – and the poor creature was delivered of a child in the workhouse of St. Mary Whitechapel, and died about six months since’.

James was an inspector for the committee during 1806, and reported on 72 apprentices within the parish – this is a rather amazing amount of volunteered time for a busy medical practitioner. But the scheme of regular checks and inspections had the desired result, and the committee minutes six years later, noted that ‘Mr Parkinson reported – that the officers, himself and several of the committee, visited the children apprenticed and found them in general comfortably situated’.


In 1804, at the same time that the first locomotive engine made it’s first trip – Penydarren to Abercynon, a distance of 9.75 miles (15.69 km), pulling 5 wagons carrying 11.24 tons of coal, and 70 men the full distance in 4 hours and 5 minutes at an average speed of 2.4 mph (3.9 km/h) – James published one of the books that would cement his legacy.


First steam locomotive (known as “Pen-y-Darren” built by Richard Trevithick. Source: Wikipedia

But it is probably not the book you are thinking of. Or even a book that you’ll have heard of if you don’t take an interest in geology and paleontology.

The ‘Organic Remains of a Former World, Vol I’ was to be the first of four volumes. They were considered ‘must reads’ by the scientific community at the time, with Gideon Mantell (see below) suggesting that it was “the first attempt to give a familiar and scientific account of fossils”. James was quoted as saying that he “always had an insatiable curiosity to pry into the mysteries of the natural world” and as a avid enthusiast of oryctology (the term for palaeontology at the time) he amassed one of the largest and most valuable collections of fossils in Britain.

When reading book, however, understand that James himself provided the illustrations – another talent to add to the man’s impressive collection (and this applied to all of the volumes, and his daughter Emma coloured some of the plates). Click here to read Organic Remains of a Former World, if you want.


The front page of ‘Organic Remains of a Former World’ with James’ illustrations

In 1805, James publishes ‘Observations on the Nature and Cure of Gout’ which was one of the first medical reports of a condition that both James and his father suffered from.

Gout involves recurrent attacks of acute inflammatory arthritis. It is caused by elevated levels of uric acid in the blood, which become crystallised and deposited in joints and tendons, as well as the surrounding tissue, causing the sufferer great pain.


Gout. Source: My health

In 1804, Dr Robert Kinglake (Taunton, Somerset) published ‘A dissertation on Gout’. He proposed the theory that gout was a local disease – no different to ‘common inflammation’ and thus not a disease in its own right. Kinglake’s remedy for gout was the ‘refrigeration treatment’, which consisted of the cloths being immersed in ‘a solution of equal parts of cold water and Aqua Ammon. Acet.’

James was extremely critical of Dr Kinglake’s theory.

He also condemned the cooling treatment which he had tried administering on himself and his patients. And James was not alone in his criticism – another well known London medical practitioner, John Ring, wrote ‘An answer to Dr KingLake: showing the danger of his cooling treatment of the Gout’ in 1816.


John Ring (1752–1821) – source: Wikipedia

In response to Kinglake’s dissertation, our James decided to provide his own theory of gout, which was the ‘Observations on the Nature and Cure of Gout’ that he published in 1805 (Click here to read it).

Two years later (1807), James published volume II of his ‘Organic Remains of a Former World’ collection. In addition, he also published ‘Dangerous Sports’, which was his last writing on family health. And if that wasn’t enough – like I said he was a really busy man – James was also one of the 13 founding members of the Geological Society (13th November).

Source: Kibabiiuniversity

In 1808, the year after the introduction of laws to abolish the slave trade in both Britain and America, John WK Parkinson became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and joined James’s practise (‘Parkinson and Son’).

The year 1811 was important in the life of James for two reasons: firstly on the 6th April Mary Parkinson (James’s mother) died. Second, James met a young man named Gideon Mantell.


Gideon Mantell. Source: Britannica

Gideon Mantell was a parish doctor and army surgeon from Lewes (Sussex) who went on to become a celebrated geologist. His interest was stimulated by the huge collection of fossils and geological specimens that James displayed in cabinets at his house in Hoxton Square.

Mantell is critical in JP history though, because in the absence of a painting or a likeness, he provided us with the only description of James’ appearance and personality:

“Mr. Parkinson, was rather below middle stature, with an energetic intellect, and pleasing expression of countenance, and of mild and courteous manners; readily imparting information, either on his favourite science, or on professional subjects.”

Not much to go on I agree, but other than that description of the man there is little else.

Mantell also provides us with an explanation of what ever happened to Parkinson’s grand fossil collection:

“After his death, his beautiful and choice collection was sold by auction. The fine series of silicified zoophytes was purchased by Mr. Featherstonhaugh, and taken to America; and some years afterwards, was destroyed by fire which consumed the museum in which it was placed”

Wabi-sabi (侘寂).

1811 was the year that a 12-year old Mary Anning discovered a 21 foot long ichthyosaur fossil at Lyme Regis (on the Dorset coast), and Jane Austen published ‘Sense and Sensibility’. Not as high on the best sellers list was Parkinson’s publication ‘Observations on the Act for Regulating Madhouses’ and the third volume of ‘Organic Remains of a Former World’. Prolific writer.


From Mary Anning’s notes. Source: BBC

In July of 1813, Parkinson and Son were appointed Medical officers to the Poor of the Parish of St Leonard’s in Hoxton. In this role, they were responsible for the medical care of paupers in the workhouses. When a severe epidemic of typhus occurred in Hoxton in 1814, it was James that proposed building a separate block on the infirmary to segregate and isolate the sick in an attempt to limit spreading the condition in the overcrowded building. This and other suggestions were written in this tract entitled ‘Observations of the necessity for Parochial Fever Wards” published in 1819.


Charles Dickens, born in Portsmouth in 1812. Source: Independent

Under no circumstances should this post be considered an exhaustive summary of the life of James Parkinson. Much has been left out. For example, little mention has been given to his tremendous religious faith which governed many aspects of his life, from his involvement in the activities of his local church to his ideas about the origins of his beloved fossils (he firmly believed that creation and extinction were processes guided by the hand of God). In addition, I have written about the document that made him famous in medical circles – “An essay on shaking palsy” (Click here to read that post) so I have not mentioned that here.


18th June, 1815 – the Battle of Waterloo. Source: History

By leaving material out one feels a great misjustice is being committed. But the space here is limited, as is the attention span of many readers who would prefer content on new research on the field named after James. For those seeking more reading material on JP, I would fully recommend:

  • Shirley Robert’s book (Roberts, S. (1997) ‘James Parkinson, 1755-1824 : from apothecary to general practitioner’ Royal Society of Medicine Press, London)
  • Dr Cherry Lewis’s book (Lewis, C. (2017) ‘The Enlightened Mr. Parkinson: The Pioneering Life of a Forgotten Surgeon’ Icon Books Ltd)
  • Dr Arthur Daniel Morris’ book (Morris, AD. (1989) ‘James Parkinson. His Life and times’, Birkhauser)

In the next and final post in this series, we will look at his final years and the influence his seminal work would have within the field of neurology.

Several things before we finish up – if you are interested in all things James, the Centre for Neuroscience and Trauma (London) is organising an event called “THE JAMES PARKINSON MEMORIAL DAY – THE MAN BEHIND SHAKING PALSY” on the Thursday 16th November 2017 from 13:00 – 20:30 (Click here to see the program). Although I haven’t touched the Searching4James website for quite some time now, I will be going along to this event to learn a little more about the man.

And before the event I will be heading over to the Royal Society of Medicine exhibit about James which is on show from Monday 6th November 2017 until Saturday 27th January 2018.

Also, I recently looked in on another JP exhibit in London – King’s College London has a James Parkinson display in the Weston Room at the Maughan Library (Chancery Lane, London) from 11th October till 16th December. Some very interesting bits and pieces, including letter written by the man and an example of Parkinsonia dorsetensis – a shell shaped fossil named after JP (see below).

The banner for today’s post was sourced from Lindahall

2 thoughts on “James: The man behind the disease (Part 3)

  1. Simon, yet again you prove that you belong at the top of the tree when ranking blogs. It is uncanny how much of your passion for knowledge (input and output) bears very close resemblance to mine – even down to specific subjects such as space travel and I would guess the most important thing to you would be HISTORY. And we are talking history as it really was or as close as we can get to it.
    As you know there are many deluded do-gooders (in their own imaginations) out there who are steadily sanitising history because they cannot accept that things like slavery, incessant wars, colonialism etc. etc. really happened and they shield today’s kids from learning about these things or demand the toppling of previously revered pioneers such as the founding fathers of the USA or how about booting out literary classics because many of them were middle or old aged white men’s works. WHY do they have to fall before black and Asian races can be given a fair go at it? Raise these people up to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the establishment heroes of the past and accept the grim truth but also the good things they did. Victoriana exploited much of the world but at the same time it built much of the foundations of our modern world. Can we begin to imagine what the world would be like today if our ancestors had not been restless enough to explore and build?
    Going back to our teaching of history today as I said there are some who want history to be modified to be politically correct. Ladies and gents, good or bad, right or wrong, capitalism or communism and on and on we could go, reporting the truth of what happened is NOT endorsing it, it is merely a record of facts (absurd example coming up!) I watched a video where a couple of guys were asking passers by historical questions that should have been ‘no-brainers’ to use that contradictory Americanism.
    The most amazing answer came from a woman who looked in her early 20s. She was asked a question about World War 2 and replied with ‘What? World War 2?Never heard of it! When was that?’
    The biggest world -changing event in human history that killed at least 60 million people, advanced technology immensely in a span of only a few years and elevated Russia and the USA to superpower status while bankrupting our ambitions and some schools/colleges don’t even acknowledge it happened? Another person was asked if they thought J.F.K should run for the presidency and replied in the affirmative – never mind that John F Kennedy was elected in 1960 and assassinated in 1963!
    Simon, if you take this off I fully understand – my point is that in the medical world as in other areas sometimes the truth is obscured or twisted by egos too attached to theories and only true results will get us to where we want to go. I appreciate your commitment to the truth and history.
    See you very soon!


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