James Parkinson Biography

Neurologist, Activist, Geologist, Doctor, Scientist (1755–1824)
English born, English bred, forgotten by the English and the world, James Parkinson identified the "shaking palsy" as a disease of the central nervous system.


Though best known for the nervous disorder that bears his name, James Parkinson was a man of many interests. Medicine, social reform and geology also occupied his attention, and he wrote numerous publications in each of these areas. Parkinson's work on shaking palsy was notable, but as the author his name fell into obscurity until 40 years later, when his name was attached to the disease.

Early Life and Training in Medicine

James Parkinson was born in London on April 11, 1755, to John and Mary Parkinson. One of three children, James was influenced early on to pursue a career in medicine. His father was the local surgeon and apothecary, and James' early education included Latin, Greek, natural philosophy and shorthand—all subjects considered essential to a doctor's basic training.

Few details are known of his medical training, but historians have found clues in Parkinson's writings. He studied at the London Hospital Medical College in 1776 and received his diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons. It is believed Parkinson was also influenced by John Hunter, a researcher with interests in biology, pathology and medical science. Parkinson makes mention in his notes of Hunter's descriptions of tremor and paralysis.

In 1781, Parkinson married Mary Dale. The couple would eventually have six children. After serving as an apprentice in his father's practice, Parkinson took over after his father died in 1794. Over the next decade, in addition to his medical work, Parkinson would broaden his interests into chemistry, geology, politics and paleontology.

Social Reformer

Parkinson was an aggressive social reformer and an outspoken critic of British Prime Minister William Pitt. He published numerous pamphlets under his own name and the pseudonym "Old Hubert," pushing for direct citizen representation in the House of Commons and universal suffrage. He was a member of several secret political societies, and his association with one, the London Corresponding Society for Reform of Parliamentary Representation, resulted in his being called before Pitt's Privy Council. In 1794, members of the society were charged with plotting to murder King George III with a poison-laced dart shot from a popgun. All charges were eventually dismissed.


Between 1799 and 1807, Parkinson published numerous brief medical articles for the professional audience, including a 1795 treatise on gout noting that daily doses of soda provided great relief from the pain and swelling. In 1812, he wrote a report on how a perforated appendix could lead to peritonitis and death.

Undoubtedly, Parkinson's best known and most important work was "Essay on the Shaking Palsy," published in 1817. Describing what would later become known as Parkinson's disease, he observed symptoms of prolonged trembling in different parts of the body, most notably the hands and arms. Others had written previously on the subject of shaking palsy, including the ancient Greek physician Galen, but Parkinson's descriptions were so comprehensive that he influenced other pathologists to study shaking palsy. Four decades later, French physician Jean-Martin Charcot attached Parkinson's name to the syndrome.

Geological Studies

A Renaissance man in the age of Enlightenment, Parkinson's interests gradually turned from medicine to geology. This avocation allowed him to make short trips with friends and family to collect and observe fossils of plants and animals. Fifty years before Charles Darwin, Parkinson engaged in the debate over science and religion's explanation of creation. Though he acknowledged that creation of life had taken a long time, he believed it had proceeded along in an orderly fashion guided by the hand of God. To reconcile the concept of geological time with theology, he adopted the notion that each day of creation represented a long period of time.

Parkinson died on December 21, 1824, at age 69, after a severe stroke.

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