Book review: The Enlightened Mr Parkinson: The Pioneering Life of a Forgotten English Surgeon, by Cherry Lewis

An illustration from 1804 book The Villagers Friend by James Parkinson showing a village apothecary, believed to be the author. Illustration: Wellcome Library
An illustration from 1804 book The Villagers Friend by James Parkinson showing a village apothecary, believed to be the author. Illustration: Wellcome Library
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The Scotsman’s monthly review of a book about health, promoted by Wellcome

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition which affects millions of people worldwide, and yet surprisingly this is the first popular scientific account of the life of James Parkinson (1755-1824), who first described the illness in his classic treatise, ‘An Essay on the Shaking Palsy’, published in 1817. Still more surprising because Parkinson himself was a fascinating figure, a veritable enlightenment polymath: surgeon-apothecary, geologist, palaeontologist and political radical, as Cherry Lewis’s excellent new book The Enlightened Mr Parkinson: The Pioneering Life of a Forgotten English Surgeon makes clear.

Parkinson was 62 when his treatise was published, towards the end of a rich professional life and a turbulent private one. Lewis, an honorary research fellow at the University of Bristol, is a geologist by training, and has written about Parkinson before with respect to his work in this field and in palaeontology (known then as oryctology).

The book begins by describing Parkinson’s upbringing in Hoxton, then a village about to be engulfed by London’s urban sprawl at the time of the industrial revolution, and within a few pages we’re grounded nicely in the sights, smells and social changes of the time. During a seven-year apprenticeship Parkinson trained to become an apothecary like his father: learning to grind and mix his own medicines, how to diagnose minor ailments, let blood and purge and blister his patients (medical practitioners of the 18th century still believed in the Hippocratic notion of bodily humours, and tried by these means to rebalance them.) After this he trained as a dresser (surgeon’s assistant) on his way to later becoming a surgeon. Parkinson would generally have treated poor and lower middle-class patients; if he attended to the servants of the wealthy he would be admitted via the back door (while the physicians, arriving in a chaise at the front door, administered to the family themselves.)

Around this time Parkinson worked in a receiving house, where “bedraggled bodies, most of them pulled from London’s waterways, could be taken for treatment.” Enlightenment society appeared to share the later Victorian dread of being buried (or dissected) alive, and it seems the roots of resuscitation were as much about proving death as preserving life. I was surprised to learn attempts were being made even then to “defibrillate” the heart – in fact Parkinson may have been one of the first to carry out such a procedure, using a “portable electrical machine” he kept in his pocket.

During the late 18th century, the Age of Revolution, Parkinson turned into something of a political radical, perhaps inspired by the poverty and inequality he had witnessed during his rounds. In 1792 he joined the London Corresponding Society, whose main objective was parliamentary reform – particularly universal male suffrage (only 2 per cent of the population were eligible to vote). Parkinson began writing for the anti-government fortnightly Hog’s Wash, writing (dreadful) poems under the pseudonym “Old Hubert.” Then in 1794 he was caught up in the Pop Gun Plot, an alleged conspiracy to assassinate the “Mad King” George III, which reads like a precursor of McCarthy-era American paranoia. He most comes to life during an account of his interrogation by the Privy Council, including no less a figure than Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Parkinson’s tart replies reveal a proud man who risks serious consequences by admitting his authorship of “seditious” pamphlets.

His later career demonstrates a wealth of talent and interests. In 1799 he published no fewer than five books, including his Magnum Opus, Medical Admonitions, a medical advice guide for families. He was an advocate of social reform and made recommendations for the regulation of child labour and asylums, and was a supporter of smallpox vaccination; he designed a hernia truss the poor could make cheaply for themselves, and wrote about gout (which he himself suffered); and he wrote foundation works in Geology and Palaeontology. And of course there was his ‘Essay on the Shaking Palsy’, in which he described the cardinal symptoms of Parkinson’s disease for the first time: a seminal work which led Jean-Martin Charcot 50 years later to propose the illness be named after him.

Lewis writes in an enjoyably digressive style: her descriptions of medical practice at the end of the 18th century, and of changing life in east London, are particularly engaging. My only quibble would be the last chapter, which traces Parkinson’s descendents to New Zealand and the present day; this reveals nothing about the man himself.

This aside, Lewis’s book shines a light on Parkinson, and gives something of the name back to the person: a man whose interests ranged far beyond medicine, and whose social engagement, and engagement with his time, sings from the page.

The Enlightened Mr Parkinson: The Pioneering Life of a Forgotten English Surgeon is published by Icon, £20

Rob Ewing is an Edinburgh-based GP. His debut novel The Last of Us is published by Borough Press and he was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Short Story Award.