Parkinson's disease is named after a brilliant doctor

The first page of Parkinson's classical essay on shaking palsy.

The first page of Parkinson's classical essay on shaking palsy. - Credit: Submitted

One of my more interesting hospital placements as a student was at St Leonard’s Hospital in East London.

It was built as the Shoreditch Workhouse.

The staff canteen was a large room overlooked by a balcony.

When it was a workhouse the Beadle used to stand on the balcony to ensure no inmates had any money or behaved inappropriately.

I hope I did not behave inappropriately but he would have been happy that I had very little money.

The most famous person to have worked there was James Parkinson, now famous as the first person to describe Parkinson’s Disease.

In 1813, he was appointed as the parish surgeon, apothecary and man-midwife.

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The workhouse doctor was not a popular job.

They received a salary from the parish who were usually strapped for cash.

The role was often put out to competitive tender and the physician/ surgeon who asked for the lowest salary was usually appointed.

This meant that often the doctor spent most of his time with his private patients and ignored his commitments to the workhouse.

At least today no-one can imagine a local government starved of funds using competitive tendering to go for the cheapest option.

James Parkinson was a local man, born in Shoreditch in 1755, and he inherited his father’s practice in 1783.

Unlike many other workhouse parish surgeons he was passionate and caring.

By simply watching people in the workhouse and on the streets, he noticed that several appeared to have the same problem.

In 1817, he wrote his “Essay on the shaking palsy”, a disease he called paralysis agitans.

In his paper he described most of the symptoms we now recognise as Parkinson’s Disease.

Sixty years later the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot gave him the credit by renaming Paralysis Agitans 'Parkinson’s Disease'.

Parkinson published several papers on gout but was also the first person to describe acute appendicitis describing how a patient had died when it ruptured.

Like many others during the enlightenment, his interests were wide. He fought to improve the legal protection for the mentally ill and their families.  

He wrote over 20 political pamphlets opposing the government of William Pitt, calling for universal suffrage and annual parliaments.

It is likely that he supported the French revolution.

In 1794, there was a possible plot to assassinate King George III by firing a poison dart, nick-named the 'pop-gun plot'.

James Parkinson was implicated and interviewed by William Pitt and the privy council although he was never charged.

All accused were acquitted and it is likely that the whole plot was 'fake news' but it is easy to see why he never became Sir James Parkinson.

His inquiring mind then led him to the new field of palaeontology, although the word dinosaur was not coined until 1842.

He collected and drew fossils and, in 1804, he wrote the first volume of 'Organic Remains of a Former World'. This was followed by volume two in 1808 and three in 1811. This was 50 years before Charles Darwin published 'On the Origin of Species'.

He was one of the founder members of the Geological Society which is still an important academic society today.  

Articles about famous people are often accompanied by a picture but, sadly, we have no idea what he looked like.

Either he was not famous enough or too controversial to have a portrait.

Some websites show a photograph even though the photography was not invented until two years after his death.

All his interests centred on two things, the power of observation and compassion for his patients.

He looked closely at fossils, at people and at living conditions. Today, with a plethora of tests available, it is tempting to see an abnormality and immediately ask for a test but sometimes just taking a good history and careful examination is vital.  

Parkinson’s disease is common and today the symptoms can be treated but it’s worth remembering that it is named after a brilliant doctor.

He showed us that to improve the lives of our patients the medical profession needs great powers of observation and not being afraid to make political waves.