The discovery of Parkinson’s Disease

At 10am on 7 October 1794 a 39-year-old physician named James Parkinson presented himself in Whitehall for interrogation by William Pitt and the Privy Council. They were investigating what became known as the Popgun Plot, an alleged attempt to assassinate George III. Parkinson, a member of the radical London Corresponding Society, knew some of those arrested.

No sooner had the questioning begun than Parkinson interrupted. “I think I could suggest a better mode of examination to their Lordships,” he said. The appeal to reason, the sense of a mind working on both conceptual and practical levels at the same time, were entirely in keeping with the man. But who was he?

As his membership of the Corresponding Society suggests, Parkinson’s early career – he was born born 11 April 1755 – saw him balancing his medical career with progressive politics. The title of his 1794 pamphlet Revolutions without Bloodshed, or, Reformation Preferable to Revolt, a succinct 24-point programme to heal the nation’s ills, illustrates well enough both his temperament and his philosophy.

Later he turned to palaeontology. In his three-volume Organic Remains of a Former World (1804), he explored the fossilised the remains of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, worrying away at what they meant for the history of creation, for biblical timelines, for man’s place in the world. “Eager curiosity” was understandable; “submissive credulity” was not. Those who thought “the total extinction of some species [to be] incompatible with the power and wisdom of the Almighty” were wrong. “It must be observed that the facts are indubitable,” he wrote – while still arguing mass extinction to have been caused by the Flood.

But Parkinson is best known to history for his brief 1817 tract, An Essay on the Shaking Palsy, which defined for the first time the medical condition which he called paralysis agitans but which we know as Parkinson’s disease.

As far back as Galen in the second century, attempts had been made to diagnose and codify the various tremors and clonic disorders associated in English with the term ‘palsy’ – which derives from the same source-word as ‘paralysis’ – but it had always been something of a catch-all term. Helkiah Crooke discusses “the disease called Tremor, or the shaking palsie” in his 1615 anatomy Microcosmographia, where it seems to be an undifferentiated term for all involuntary body movements. In The Faerie Queene, Spenser places it alongside “swelling Splene, and Frenzy raging rife” as a symptom of Wrath. Aubrey used it to describe the ill-health that beset Thomas Hobbes late in life and which robbed him of the ability to write.

Parkinson’s great insight was to conceive of the disorder as “an assemblage of symptoms” and to differentiate it clearly from other, superficially similar, conditions. The breakthrough was seemingly based on just six case studies, two of whom Parkinson had met in the street, another whom he had merely observed from a distance, and a fourth he heard about from a fellow doctor.

The essay was, he said, “mere conjecture”, based on no anatomic evidence at all, but was immediately acclaimed; Keats, a few months out of his own medical career, likely drew on it for the “palsy-twitch’d” Angela in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, written at the end of 1818.

The term ‘Parkinson’s disease’ was popularised by the French clinician Jean-Martin Charcot in the late 19th century. As late as 1955, the condition was reportedly still best known to the public as ‘shaking palsy’. You wonder if the rationalist Parkinson would have preferred it that way.

This piece first appeared in the April 2022 issue of History Today.

Like this? You can read more of Mathew’s History Today Months Past pieces here.

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