Have you ever wondered how Parkinson’s got its name? Until the 1870s, it was called either Paralysis Agitans or Shaking Palsy.
The famous French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot taught his students that the term Paralysis Agitans was inappropriate because patients were not weak or paralysed, but neither was the term Shaking Palsy accurate since not all patients have a tremor. He suggested the term Maladie de Parkinson in recognition of James Parkinson’s 1817 essay, The Shaking Palsy, which was the first time that the condition had been described. Charcot was impressed by Parkinson’s “descriptive and vivid definition that is correct for many, if not all cases…” and he was further impressed by Parkinson’s ability to observe symptoms. Since then, Parkinson’s disease has become the established name in medical literature.
James Parkinson was born in 1755 and his birthday, 11 April, is now World Parkinson’s Day. He was an apothecary based in London. Apothecaries dispensed medicines and tended to minor ailments and injuries. However, James Parkinson did not spend all his time concerned with observing patients he suspected of having the Shaking Palsy. He had wide-ranging interests.
He was one of the first people to promote mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and successfully resuscitated a patient who had attempted suicide by hanging. He was passionately interested in geology and had one of the finest collections of fossils in the world and was also a founder member of the Geological Society. The 1790s were unsettled times politically and James Parkinson was a Radical and impatient for social reform. He was a pamphleteer and narrowly missed imprisonment and transportation.
Unfortunately there is not enough space here to say more about this extraordinary man “English born and bred…forgotten by the English and the world at large – such is the fate of James Parkinson”. I recommend reading The Enlightened Mr Parkinson by Cherry Lewis, published by Icon Books Ltd 2017.