Would the real James Parkinson please stand up

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In today’s post, we will discuss a common mistake that is made in presentations about Parkinson’s disease. 

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I was recently listening to a public lecture on the topic of Parkinson’s, and the presenter (who shall remain nameless) started with a slide that showed this image:

And they began with the grand proclamation that “this is Dr James Parkinson, after whom the condition of Parkinson’s disease is named“.

As they said these words, my blood boiled.


There were two things terribly wrong with their statement.

  1. James was not a doctorIn the 18/19th centuries, “doctors” in England had to undergo formal university training to gain possession of a degree in medicine before they could begin to practice medicine. James never went to university, and thus, he was not a “doctor”. Rather, James was an apothecary – like his father – which is a medical professional who formulated and dispensed remedies. Today he would be called a ‘pharmacist’ or ‘chemist’. But back in the 17/1800s, apothecary prepared and administered medicines.

Ok. And what was number 2?

2. The image is not James Parkinson of Parkinson’s disease fame.

Oh, I see. Who is it then?

It is a James Parkinson. But it’s not our James Parkinson.


If you google search ‘James Parkinson’, and then click on images, you will find many copies of this image:

There are many different versions of this old photo. Some are labelled with the name and life span of JP (1755-1824). But there is just one small problem:

The man in this photo is NOT James Parkinson of Parkinson’s disease fame.

How do you know?

Because this is the oldest existing photograph:

Oldest photo

Source: Wikipedia

It is called ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’, and it was created by Nicéphore Niépce at his estate, Le Gras, in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes.

It shows parts of the buildings and surrounding countryside seen from a high window.

Ok, so what?

That first-ever photo was taken in 1826.


That’s two years after 69 year old James Parkinson of Parkinson’s disease fame died of a stroke in Shoreditch, London..

In addition, the man in the photo is not wearing the right clothes for the early 1800s era. He is in the fashion of the mid-nineteenth century or later.

So who is the guy in the photo?

He’s James Parkinson.


The man in the photo above is named James Cumine Parkinson. He was born on the 1st February, 1832, at Killough, near Belfast, Northern Ireland, and he died 13th July, 1887, at the Iron Pot Lighthouse, Hobart, Australia (Source). The original photo of James can be found here.

He is definitely not James Parkinson of Parkinson’s disease fame.

Good to know. Is this the end of the post?

No, because I was recently listening to another public lecture on the topic of Parkinson’s, and the presenter (who shall remain nameless) started with a slide that showed this image:

And they began with the grand proclamation that “this is Dr James Parkinson, after whom the condition of Parkinson’s disease is named“.

As they said these words, my blood boiled.

Because he’s not a doctor?

Yes, but it’s also not James Parkinson of Parkinson’s disease fame.

And let me guess: It is a James Parkinson?

Yes, but not our James.

But it’s a painting, right? It’s not a photo. How do we know that it’s not the right James Parkinson?

Because here is a photo of the same guy:

Source: PracticalNeurology

This James Parkinson was the first treasurer of the British Dental Association, and together with John Tomes led the Dental Reform Movement. He died in 1895 (Source).

Got it. So is this the end of the post?

No, because I was recently reading Bill Bryson’s wonderful book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, and Bill (we’re on a first name basis) mentions James Parkinson in the chapter dealing with geology:

Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Bill’s book. Source: Amazon


Before being associated with the condition that bears his name, JP was a rock star in the world of geology (pun intended).

In her excellent book The Enlightened Mr. Parkinson, Bristol University researcher Cherry Lewis notes that “Parkinson was not only a pioneer in medicine but also internationally famous for his works on fossils. He revealed an unknown world… His exquisitely illustrated “Organic Remains of a Former World” placed the study of fossils on the scientific map of Britain before the subject even had a name.”

Source: Charconeurotech

James published “Organic Remains of a Former World” in 1804 and it represented a comprehensive overview of the specimens that he had collected. With its exquisitely illustrated figures, it quickly became the standard text for the palaeontology community in Britain. “It was the first full attempt to detail fossils and offer scientific explanation, which is why Parkinson can be considered a ‘grandfather’ of this field” (Source). And many fossils have been named after him.

And to really hammer home his geology credentials, in her book, Lewis noted that when James became the first recipient of the Honorary Gold Medal of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1822, it was not for his Essay on the Shaky Palsy, but rather for his groundbreaking work on fossils (Source).

Enough of the geological detour – back to Bryson:

In his book, Bill correctly notes James as a founding member of the geological society (Source) and mentions his “Essay on the Shaking Palsy” as one of the first documents describing Parkinson’s disease.

But then he wrote:

‘Parkinson had one other slight claim to fame. In 1785, he became possibly the one person in history to win a natural history museum in a raffle. The museum, in London’s Leicester Square, had been founded by Sir Ashton Lever, who had driven himself bankrupt with his unrestrained collecting of natural wonders. Parkinson kept the museum until 1805, when he could no longer support it and the collection was broken up and sold.’

And being a big fan of Bill’s books, it truly pains me to write this, but as I read this paragraph my blood boiled.

The wrong James Parkinson’s again?


This particular James Parkinson – the chance proprietor of the Leverian collection (between 1785 – 1806) – was born in Shrewsbury in February 1730 and died in at some point in 1830. Similar to our James, there are no portraits or likenesses of this James either. To confuse matters even further, he was the son of yet another James Parkinson (and his wife, Jane Birch). James junior started out in the world as a law stationer, but he then went on to become an accountant and land agent.

On 23 March 1786, Parkinson’s wife bought two tickets in a raffle for the enormous collection of Sir Ashton Lever. So large was the collection of natural items, that that Lever had acquired a Leicester House in 1774 to allow the public to view it for a fee. But Lever had continued to collect items until it finally bankrupted him in 1785, at which point the collection contained 28,000 specimens. Both the British Museum and the Empress of Russia declined to buy it. So, in the end Lever decided to raffle it off, and offered the public 8,000 tickets which were sold at a guinea each.

probably by; after William Holl Sr; Samuel Shelley,print,published 1835

Sir Ashton Lever. Source: Wikipedia

James Parkinson’s wife bought two tickets, gave one away, and then sadly died before the ticket was drawn as the winner of the raffle. Parkinson was left with the museum, and tried to maintain it over the following twenty years until he was forced to sell the collection in lots by auction in 1806. He died 7 years later.

And so ends the story of another wrong James Parkinson.

Lots of wrong James Parkinsons. So what does James Parkinson of Parkinson’s disease fame actually look like then?

We do not know.

There is no likeness of him. No paintings or sculptures exist as far as we know.

In fact, our only description of him is from a quote that his friend, Dr. Gideon Mantell made. He described JP as “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” (Source).

And we do have a likeness of Mantell (note that it is not a photo):

Gideon Mantell Source: Wikipedia

The closest we get to having likenesses of JP are from cartoons that were made at the time. One is from an image in one of his own books. ‘The Villager’s Friend and Physician‘ is a pamphlet/booklet that was written by James Parkinson in 1800. Inside the front page of this booklet, is this picture:

Source: Lancet

It has been suggested that the physician in the middle, lecturing the other people, is our James Parkinson, but this is rather speculative.

There is also another drawing that could provide a likeness. In 2018, Prof Andrew Lees and colleagues reported the discovery of a 1789 satirical engraving of the “Meeting Night of the Club of Odd Fellows” which has a gentleman holding a medicine bottle. In 1789, JP was appointed as surgeon to the Oddfellow, so perhaps this image also hints at what James looked like:

Source: PMC

So is this the end of the post? If so, what does it all mean?

James was a truly remarkable individual and I suspect that he would be surprised that his name is remember more for a condition he described in one of his many writings, rather than geology or his political activities (the latter deserves a separate post).

But since details and facts matter – now more than ever it seems – I thought it important to share this post in the hope of reducing the number of presenters offering images of the man for whom there is no likeness.

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The banner for today’s post was sourced from craiyon

3 thoughts on “Would the real James Parkinson please stand up

  1. That’s so interesting. You can see how we can just google things, see inaccurate information and keep moving it forward as fact. Reminds me to dig a little deeper than an social media post.


  2. When an effective and permanent treatment for Parkinson’s is finally made, there’s a good chance that you will yourself be remembered as someone who contributed a great deal to that attainment. And so, based on this article, I would suggest that, at your earliest opportunity, you should pose yourself with a copy of the current daily newspaper, along with a sign that says “I am the Simon Stott best known for creating the Science of Parkinson’s Web site, and this is my true and unmodified picture taken this ____ day of ____, in the year _____.”


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