"Parkinson's Disease" is a powerful and somewhat frightening medical term that has passed into popular English usage. It's an eponym, one of those words or phrases that derive from a person's name. The disease was first described in 1817 by James Parkinson (1755-1824), a surgeon and apothecary from Hoxton in London. Late in life, at the age of sixty-two, he published "An Essay on the Shaking Palsy," which first identified Parkinson's Disease as a distinct condition. Much later, in 1876, a French neurologist was the first to refer to "la maladie de Parkinson," which translated into English as the term so familiar to us today.
James Parkinson was a Londoner of modest means, the son of a surgeon. At various times during his long life of public service, he was doctor to the poor of St. Leonard's Parish, the medical attendant at a private madhouse, and secretary to his local Sunday School. In addition, he was an author of medical advice books, popular books on chemistry, and scientific works on both paleontology and clinical topics.
There is, however, much more to this extraordinary man's career. He was also a political radical, very active in the turbulent decade of the 1790's, when the impact of the French Revolution was first felt in Britain. Parkinson was a member of the famous London Corresponding Society, founded in 1792, and remembered as one of the first working men's political organisations. Indeed, it was made up mainly of artisans and tradesmen, with only a sprinkling of members from the better-educated middling ranks (like Parkinson himself). Interestingly, Parkinson was one of the few who were simultaneously members of the more middle-class -and even verging on upper-class—Society for Constitutional Information, whose reformist membership included some Members of Parliament, clergymen, doctors, merchants and lawyers.
The radical reformers of the time wanted a large-scale extension of the franchise to working men in order to implement an anti-corruption agenda, establish religious freedom, and abolish slavery. Parkinson had become a member of the London Corresponding Society (LCS) by 1793, or perhaps even earlier, and in a 1794 pamphlet he defended the society against charges that it had been responsible for some disturbances to the public peace.
We know some details about the meetings of the LCS, because the government had informers in it who dutifully recorded much of the proceedings. From these records it can be seen that "Citizen" Parkinson (as he was called by the other members, in a common radical form of address of that era), was a highly-respected person. His education, literary skills, and social contacts made him a most useful member of the LCS. He was often the society's intermediary, sent to enlist the support of middle-rank reformers who had legal or literary talents needed by the LCS in its various struggles. Parkinson was chosen to be on the LCS publications committee, and in that capacity he handled correspondence and the editing of political leaflets. These activities were not without a certain risk in the heated political climate of the time. In October of 1794, an LCS meeting was raided by Bow Street police officers and an informer pointed out Parkinson as a person likely to have "papers of consequence." Parkinson was searched, but no proceedings were taken against him.
In 1795 he was summoned to testify before the Attorney-General and the Privy Council in the so-called "Pop-Gun Plot" inquiry, which was investigating an alleged assassination attempt on the King. Parkinson proved to be a difficult witness, careful not to incriminate himself or to give information that might be used to incriminate fellow reformers. Their lordships got out of him that he was the author of certain pamphlets, and wanted to know whether he was a member of the LCS Secret Committee. This latter allegation he denied, and stated that, on the contrary, he was a member of the Committee of Correspondence. Then Prime Minister William Pitt asked how he came "to be invited on this Committee." Parkinson replied: "Because, I believe they did me the honour to believe me firm in the cause of parliamentary reform." The remark was ironical, because Pitt himself had once been an advocate of reform.
Parkinson's political career involved no violence or political conspiracies. In both his actions and his writings, he was an advocate of moderate tactics. He wrote many pamphlets, some anonymously but which he later acknowledged, and others under the pseudonym "Old Hubert." These show an able wit and a determination to advance the cause of reform. In late 1794 or early 1795, he wrote a seven-page satirical pamphlet entitled An Account of Some Peculiar Manners and Customs of the People of Bull-Land, or the Island of Contradictions. Parkinson's description of Bull-Land, or Britain, was set out in a series of contradictions, each headed with a roman numeral. The spirit of radical republicanism is captured in many of these.
"V. The office of King is esteemed by the Bull-Landers so important and sacred, that it is a maxim with them that the King can never die—and yet all that is required of him, on the score of intellect, is, that he be not absolutely an idiot or a madman.
"VII. Although the King is esteemed the protector, supporter and father of his people, he devours daily as much as would feed fifty thousand of his famishing children."
Other Parkinsonian contradictions attack slavery, corruption, the war with France, and the persecution of reformers. Parkinson remained active in the LCS until 1797 or 1798, when the Society's institutional existence came to an end as a result of the government's repressive policies.
Beginning in 1799, Parkinson published a number of scientific works, both popular and scholarly. His Medical Admonitions to Families (1799) was an advice book intended to help ordinary folk to identify symptoms of illnesses. In 1800 he published a work to facilitate the education of medical students, as well as The Chemical Pocket-Book. In the years 1804-1811, he brought out a three-volume work on fossils intended to prove the existence of the antediluvian world. In 1805 he published on gout, in 1807 on the education of the poor, in 1811 on madhouses, in 1817—famously—on the "shaking palsy," and in 1819 on parochial fever wards.
A recent biography of Parkinson lists some forty publications for him when all his books, political pamphlets, and scientific papers are taken in account. He wrote on a variety of topics during his long and productive career, and there is a danger of making superficial assessments of his contributions to humanity, of compartmentalising Parkinson the political radical from the popular medical educator, from the fossil classifier, from the Sunday school secretary, from the parochial doctor, and from the medical researcher who identified a now-famous disease. The challenge for us is to understand how all these components of the life of James Parkinson, the radical surgeon of Hoxton, were bound together in a seamless connection.--Fred Donnelly