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).

Continue reading “James: The man behind the disease (Part 3)”

The Enlightened Mr Parkinson


Something different today – but certainly keeping in line with our interest in all things Parkinson-related. As many readers will be aware, 2017 is the 200th anniversary of the first description of Parkinson’s disease by one James Parkinson (1817).

Just in time for Parkinson’s Awareness week (next week), a new book has been published that outlines the life of the great man behind the disease. This book, however, takes a very different look at James. While discussing his medical contributions, it also provides a deeper understanding of all of the ‘other stuff’ he did.

In today’s post, we have our first ever author interview.


Source: Dm-3

This week ‘The Enlightened Mr. Parkinson: The Pioneering Life of a Forgotten English Surgeon’ by Cherry Lewis was published by Icon Books Ltd.

In the book, Dr Lewis provides a new angle on the life of James Parkinson: while discussing many of the medical related activities of his life as several other books have done, Lewis also provides insight into Parkinson’s interest in the geological sciences. 


We have previously communicated with Dr Cherry Lewis about our interest in James Parkinson, and when we heard that her book was being published this week we reached out and asked if she would mind answering a few questions about the book.

Good soul that she is, she readily agreed.

That said, let’s begin:

Hi Cherry, thank you for agreeing to do this. Please introduce yourself to the readers.

I am an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. A geologist by training, I have worked in the oil industry as well as in the press office at the University of Bristol where I ‘translated’ developments in science and medicine for the general public. I now write on the history of geology and other sciences.

And why have you written a book about James Parkinson? What was your interest in him? 

Parkinson wrote the first scientific account of fossils – a three-volume work entitled, ‘Organic Remains of a Former World’.


Organic Remains of a Former World by James Parkinson, London, 1804. Source: Aberrarebooks

I felt Parkinson’s understanding of geology and fossils had never been properly examined and interpreted before. I wanted to put the record straight.

Were you familiar with his life story before you started?

Once I started, I realised that there were other biographies, but these tended to focus on his medical work and didn’t cover his most important work – his study of fossils – in any depth.

What surprised you in your research on JP?

That he had worked with Edward Jenner shortly after Jenner discovered the cow pox vaccine. Parkinson gave Jenner his dissecting microscope.


Edward Jenner. Source: MoneyWeek

What was the most interesting episode in JP’s life for you personally?

The intellectual struggle he underwent between the conventional religious convictions he had been brought up with and the truth about the age and creation of the Earth that was revealed to him through fossils. Like Darwin 50 years later, the version he presented to his audience through his books was not always what he believed himself.

What aspect of JP’s life do you wish people knew more about?

Most people have no idea who James Parkinson was at all so I’ll just be happy if they have now at least heard of him. But I would really like them to know that not only did he identify Parkinson’s disease but that during his lifetime he was internationally famous for his geological work and many fossils were named in his honour. So when the Royal College of Surgeons awarded him their first Gold Medal it was not for his medical work, nor even his Essay on the Shaking Palsy, but for his ‘splendid work on Organic remains’. It is my contention that while he would have been proud to know a disease had been named in his memory, I suspect he would rather be remembered for his work on fossils.

And finally where can readers find your book? 

The book is available on Amazon.

You can hear me talking about the book on BBC London’s Robert Elms show, at 1 hour 37 minutes into the programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04xf5nl

Fantastic. Thank you very much for your time. I’m sure the readers will be interested in buying the book and reading more.

One last note.

We here at the SoPD would also like to thank Dr Lewis for correcting us on the fact that James Parkinson was never actually a ‘Dr’.

He was simply Mr James Parkinson.

James (like his father) was trained as an apothecary (a medical practitioner who formulated and dispensed medications) and surgeon.

In the 18/19th centuries, physicians had to undergo formal university training to gain possession of a degree in medicine before they could begin to practice medicine. With this degree – a doctorate – the individual was entitled to call themselves a ‘Doctor of Medicine’ or simply Doctor (Source: Rcseng). James never went to university, and thus he is not a ‘Dr’.

An interesting fact – a fascinating read. We recommend it.