James Parkinson portrait with beard and monocle, red tulip with white edges, book featuring foot, fossil rock, chemistry beaker.

Celebrating World Parkinson's Day (April 11): The Life and Times of James Parkinson

James Parkinson, born April 11, 1755, and died December 21, 1824.

James Parkinson did not name the disease given his name. He was a very unassuming person. You get the feeling he would have never dreamed of naming his disorder after himself instead of "Shaking Palsy," the title he gave to this disorder.

Not a rediscovered disorder

Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (the father of modern neurology) proposed that Dr. Parkinson's name be linked to the disease. Parkinson was obvious and convincing that his Shaking Palsy represented a new disorder.

It was his thoroughness and thoughtful essay that led others, including Dr. Charcot, to suggest this disorder be named in his honor. Thus, Dr. Charcot proposed "Maladie de Parkinson" (Parkinson's disease).

Who was James Parkinson?

In 1955, A.D. Morris published a biography on Parkinson in the medical journal Lancet.1 The following material here was gleaned from this article by Morris. Parkinson was born, worked, and buried in Hoxton, the east end of London, England. His father was a surgeon, and Parkinson was a well-educated physician. Parkinson was known to be an excellent clinician with a highly skilled ability to observe.

Parkinson was engaged and interested in reforming infection control. Thus, he was known to have written numerous political pamphlets. Interestingly, he also wrote several children's books. Parkinson and his father had gout. In 1805, Parkinson published the Observations on the Nature and Cure of Gout, where he described their symptoms and proposed a hypothesis as to the origin of the disorder.

As a hobby, Parkinson was a geologist, and he enjoyed hunting for fossils. He wrote a 3-volume paleontology text entitled Organic Remains of a Former World that was published from 1804-1811. And in his spare time, Parkinson published a book describing the principles of chemistry entitled Chemical Textbook, which was released for five editions beginning in 1799.

An interesting side-note is that are no known portraits or drawings of Parkinson. And the only description of him was from a friend who said, "Mr. Parkinson was rather below middle stature, with an energetic, intelligent, and pleasing expression of countenance, and of mild and courteous manners; readily imparting information either on his favourite science or on professional subjects."

The Essay

The paper was entitled "Essay on the Shaking Palsy," which was authored solely by James Parkinson, and it was published in 1817 as a monograph by Sherwood, Neely, and Jones (London). It was a remarkable and detailed description of a disorder that had generally been termed Shaking Palsy (Paralysis Agitans). The essay is freely accessible. After reading this overview, possibly you may decide to read the entire article. It is passionate, it is detailed, and it hopes for a cure. Parkinson’s got everything right, but the cure was coming soon.2

An accurate depiction of the disorder

We know today about the numerous motor and non-motor features of Parkinson’s. Yet, Parkinson accurately depicted and observed this disorder as an, "Involuntary tremulous motion, with lessened muscular power, in parts not in action and even when supported; with a propensity to bend the trunk forwards, and to pass from a walking to a running pace: the senses and intellects being uninjured."

Parkinson described 6 patients

In the earliest stages of the disorder, he remarked,

So slight and nearly imperceptible are the first inroads of this malady, and so extremely slow its progress, that it rarely happens, that the patient can form any recollection of the precise period of its commencement. The first symptoms are a slight sense of weakness, with a proneness to trembling in some particular part; sometimes in the head, but most commonly in one of the hands and arms.

Importantly, as the disorder progresses, Parkinson noted,

But as the malady proceeds, even this temporary mitigation of suffering from the agitation of the limbs is denied. The propensity to lean forward becomes invincible, and the patient is thereby forced to step on the toes and fore part of the feet, whilst the upper part of the body is thrown so far forward as to render it difficult to avoid falling on the face. In some cases, when this state of the malady is attained, the patient can no longer exercise himself by walking in his usual manner, but is thrown on the toes and forepart of the feet; 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 necessary entirely to substitute running for walking; since otherwise the patient, on proceeding only a very few paces, would inevitably fall.

Parkinson also realized that these patients had a disruption in their sleeping habits, he wrote, “In this stage, the sleep becomes much disturbed. The tremulous motion of the limbs occur during sleep, and augment until they awaken the patient, and frequently with much agitation and alarm.”

Furthermore, Parkinson understood that these patients were suffering, considering he observed, “The unhappy sufferer has considered it as an evil, from the domination of which he had no prospect of escape.”

203 years later

In a remarkable essay, published in 1817, James Parkinson described very accurately a disorder named after him. In 203 years since its publication, we have come a long way in some respects to understanding this disorder.3 No doubt, we are still a long way from the finish-line. But all of us should realize many scientists and clinicians (all over the world) are working very hard today on finding a cure for this disorder. Many therapists are working every day to improve our quality-of-life.

Stay strong and healthy

We cannot lose hope. We must try to remain positive and live each day with this disorder. You are still in charge of the script of your life. Your task is to compose the most hopeful and helpful storyline and then live it the way you want. Be an inspiration for other people-with-Parkinson’s such that they might say, because of you, I did not give up.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The ParkinsonsDisease.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.