James Parkinson Biography (1755-1824)


Parkinson's disease is named after James Parkinson, who provided a detailed description of what he termed "shaking palsy" in an essay published in1817. Parkinson was also the first to recognize a perforated appendix as a cause of death.

Parkinson was born in 1755, son of a surgeon and apothecary who ran his practice in London, England. Parkinson's early education included Latin, Greek, natural philosophy and shorthand--all subjects he considered indispensable to adoctor's basic training. It is believed that Parkinson took over the medicalpractice before his father died in 1784.

The following year, Parkinson attended a surgical lecture series by John Hunter, considered the founder of pathological anatomy in England and a researcher with wide interests in biology and medical science. Over his career, Parkinson developed similarly broad interests. In addition to his medical work, hewrote about chemistry, geology, sports, and with special influence, about paleontology (the science of fossils). Parkinson was also an aggressive social reformer. He is not known to have participated in riots or public demonstrations of the day, but he issued pamphlets calling for fair taxes, revolution without bloodshed, and civil rights for the disenfranchised, among many other reforms. On weekends, he established Sunday schools for the poor.

In 1805, Parkinson published a treatise about gout, observing that daily doses of soda provided considerable relief.

His best-know work is Essay on the Shaking Palsy, published in 1817. Describing what would later be known as Parkinson's disease, he observed: "Thefirst symptoms perceived are, a slight sense of weakness, with a proneness to trembling in some particular part; . . .but most importantly in one of thehands and arms." As the disorder progressed, Parkinson wrote, patients were forced to lean forward while walking, so much so that " . . . being at the same time, irresistibly impelled to take much quicker and shorter steps, and thereby to adopt unwillingly a running pace. In some cases it is found necessaryto substitute running for walking." Still later, the tremors made even sleepdifficult, Parkinson wrote. "It now seldom leaves him for a moment; but evenwhen exhausted nature seizes a small portion of sleep, the motion becomes soviolent as not only to shake the bed-hangings, but even the floor and sashesof the room."

Others had written previously about the so-called shaking palsy, including the ancient Greek doctor Galen, but Parkinson's description was so comprehensive that his name became synonymous with the disorder. He encouraged pathologists to take a greater interest in learning about shaking palsy.

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