Parkinson, James

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(b.Hoxton Square, London, England, 11 April 1755; d. London, 21 December 1824)

medicine, Paleontology.

Parkinson’s father, John Parkinson, was a surgeon. Where James studied is not known, but in 1784 his name appeared on a list of surgeons approved by the Corporation of London, and in 1785 he attended a series of lectures by John Hunter. On 21 May 1783 he married Mary Dale of Hoxton Square; they had six children.

Parkinson’s early career was overshadowed by his involvement in a variety of social and revolutionary causes. This involvement was mainly through pamphlets that he wrote anonymously or under the pseudonym “Old Hubert.” He advocated reform and representation of the people in the House of Commons, the institution of annual parliaments, and universal suffrage. Parkinson joined the London Corresponding Society for Reform of Parliamentary Representation in 1792, and it was between then and 1795 that he was most often heard from with regard to social and political change.

In 1780 Parkinson published, anonymously, Observations on Dr. Hugh Smith’s Philosophy of Physic, a critical appraisal of Smith’s theories. With the exception of a brief account of the effects of lightning (1789), Parkinson published nothing more in the sciences until his political and social activities lessened near the end of the century. His medical practice continued to flourish, however, and during this period he became interested in geology and paleontology. In 1799 his Chemical Pocket-Book, a guide for the student and layman, was published; it reflected his interests in medicine, geology, and fossils. In 1799 a work called Medical Admonitions was also published. It was the first in a series of popular medical works by Parkinson aimed toward the improvement of the general health and well-being of the population. It is likely that these works represented a continuation of the same zeal for the welfare of the people that was expressed by his political activism. His humanitarianism appeared again in 1811, when he crusaded for better safeguards in regulating madhouses and for legal protection for the mental patients, their keepers, doctors, and families.

Parkinson was the author of several medical treatises of particular interest to the profession. These included a work on gout (1805) and a report on a perforated and gangrenous appendix with peritonitis (1812). The latter is probably the earliest description of that condition in the English medical literature. Parkinson’s most important medical work was As Essay on the Shaking Palsy (1817). In this short essay Parkinson established the disease as a clinical entity. Sorting through a variety of palsied conditions, which he had observed throughout his career, Parkinson gave the classic, albeit in modern terms limited, clinical description of the illness: “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 intellect being uninjured.” Symptoms that had been assumed to be characteristic of distinct illnesses, such as tremulous agitans and the violent propensity to run, were shown to be part of a single ailment. A study of several cases and a sorting-out of the symptoms comprises most of the work. Parkinson made no decision concerning the cause but suggested that it arose from “a disordered state of that part of the medulla which is contained in the cervical vertebrae.” The illness described by Parkinson, now called Parkinson’s disease, is understood today as one from of several clinical events.

Sometime in the late eighteenth century, Parkinson began to collect and study fossils. This was a pleasant avocation for him, and he enjoyed making short trips with his children and his friends to collect or observe fossil plants and animals. In the second edition of the Chemical Pocket-Book (1801) he made a public appeal for information on fossils. As he attempted to learn more about their identification and interpretation he discovered that there was little help available in English works. He decided, therefore, to write an introduction to the study of fossils. The first of three volumes of Organic Remains of a Former World was published in 1804, the second in 1808, and the third in 1811. Parkinson wanted these volumes to be useful to the beginning student as well as to the advanced collector. Volume I discusses the plant kingdom. The work is somewhat more theoretical than either of the other volumes and is also the least interesting; indeed, this volume met with only moderate success and was soundly criticized for its dullness and poor grammar. At a time when new discoveries in geology were causing concern among the theologians, the volume was also criticized for its failure to offer any mode of reconciliation between geology and theology. Much of the book is devoted to the question of whether coal, peat, and other bituminous products are vegetable in origin; a small portion is devoted to fossil woods, ferns, and other plants. There was considerable disagreement on this issue among Parkinson’s contemporaries. Parkinson believed these products originated from plants, and he developed a theory of “bituminous fermentation” to explain the transformation. This fermentation, one of several kinds he recognized as normal to the vegetable kingdom, operated in the absence of external air and under conditions that prohibited the escape of volatile principles in the vegetation. A fluid was thus created. A modification of this fluid occurred through the “oxygenizement” of carbon by the mixture of earthy and metallic salts.

Volume II (on the fossil zoophytes) and volume III (on the fossil starfish, echini, shells, insects, amphibia, and mammals) are more descriptive and met with a better reception. In volume III Parkinson introduced the discoveries of Lamarck, Cuvier, and William Smith. From Smith he adopted the use of fossils as stratigraphic markers, from Lamarck information on shells, and from Cuvier knowledge of the amphibia and land mammals. These volumes, though descriptive, give insight into Parkinson’s basic position with regard to geological theory.

He was opposed to the Huttonian theory of the earth. Although probably not a strict adherent of Werner’s neptunism, he favored it. In studying the relation of fossils to their strata he was convinced that the creation of life had taken a long time and had proceeded in an orderly fashion, in keeping with scriptural history. After the creation of primary rocks, vegetables were created, then animals of the water and air, followed by land animals and man. He emphasized the Biblical Flood in some cases, but creation and extinction were continuing processes guided by the hand of God. To reconcile his concept of geological time with theology, lie adopted from some of his contemporaries the notion that each day of creation represented a long period of time. Parkinson was adamantly opposed to any theory of gradual, natural evolution. The “creative power,” he argued, worked continually through new creations.

The volumes of Organic Remains were well illustrated with many plates (some in color) done by Parkinson. The plates were later republished in Gideon Mantell’s Pictorial Atlas of Fossil Remains (1850). The work was a major contribution to the development of British paleontology, particularly as a thorough and usable compilation of information on British fossils.

On 13 November, 1807 Parkinson met with several of his friends, including Sir Humphry Davy and George Greenough, at the Freemason’s Tavern. Together they formed the Geological Society of London. Parkinson was a contributor to the first volume (1811) of the society’s Transactions with a detailed study of the London basin entitled “Observations on Some of the Strata in the Neighbourhood of London, and on the Fossil Remains Contained in Them.”

In 1822 Parkinson Published Outlines of Oryctology,which he considered a supplement to Conybeare and Philips’ Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales, With an Introductory Compendium of the General Principles of That Science, and Comparative Views of the Structure of Foreign Countries. It is similar to Organic Remains, with some additions and changes based on newer developments in geology. He adopted catastrophism and viewed the creation of life in a sequence and manner like that outlined by Cuvier.


I. Original Works. Parkinson’s major works are The Chemical Pocket-Book, or Memoranda Chemical: Arranged in a Compendium of Chemistry: With Tables of Attractions, etc. Calculated as Well for the Occasional Reference of the Professional Student, As to Supply Others With a General Knowledge of Chemistry (London, 1799); Organic Remains of a Former World. An Examination of the Mineralized Remains of the Vegetables and Animals of the Antediluvian World Generally Termed Extraneous Fossils (London, 1804–1811); An Essay on the Shaking Palsy (London, 1817); and Outlines of Oryctology: An Introduction to the Study of Fossil Organic Remains; Especially of Those Found in the British Strata: Intended to Aid the Student in His Inquiries Respecting the Nature of Fossils and Their Connection With the Formation of the Earth (London, 1822).

Parkinson’s notes on J. Hunter’s lectures were transcribed by his son and published as Hunterian Reminiscences (London, 1833).

II. Secondary Literature. On Parkinson and his work see W. R. Bett, “James Parkinson: Practitioner, Pamphleteer, Politician and Pioneer in Neurology,” in Medical Press, 234 (1955), 148; G. S. Boulger, “James Parkinson,” in Dictionary of National Biography; J. Challinor, “Beginnings of Scientific Paleontology in Britain,” in Annals of Science6 (1948), 46–53; M. Critchley, ed., James Parkinson(1755–1824). A Bicentenary Volume of Papers Dealing with Parkinson’s Disease Incorporating the Original Essay on the Shaking Palsy (London, 1955), contains a biography of Parkinson by W. H. McMenemey and a bibliography; J. M. Eyles, “James Parkinson (1755–1824),” in Nature, 176 (1955), 580–581; and L. G. Rowntree, “James Parkinson,” in Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin, 23 (1912), 33–45.

Patsy A. Gerstner