Family Traditions and Medical Education

James Parkinson (1755-1824) was born on April 11, 1755 at No. 1 Hoxton Square in the parish of St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch, England to John and Mary Parkinson.  His father was an apothecary, surgeon, and anatomical warden in Hoxton for many years.  Young James served as an apprentice to his father and often joined him on resuscitation and recovery operations for the Royal Humane Society.  James Parkinson continued the family medical tradition and practiced in an office behind the main house at No. 1 Hoxton Square.  James had a younger brother, William, and sister, Mary Sedgwick, who married his close friend, John Keys.  He married Mary Dale in 1781 at St. Leonard’s church during his apprenticeship and had six children, one of whom, John William Keys (1785-1838), became a physician.  John W.K. Parkinson was an apprentice to his father for six years and then also practiced at No. 1 Hoxton Square upon receipt of his diploma of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1808.  He remained in practice in Hoxton until 12 years after his father’s death.  In turn, his son, James Keys (1812-1849), became a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in 1834 and practiced with his father in Hoxton until his father’s death.  The generations span several Parkinson father and son teams who not only shared medical practices in Hoxton, but also co-authored several medical articles or published works related to each other’s contributions.

James Parkinson studied at the London Hospital Medical College for six months in 1776 as one of the school’s earliest medical students.  Other medical experiences included an apprenticeship with his father and rescue missions for the Royal Humane Society.  He obtained his diploma of the Company of Surgeons in April 1784, shortly after his father’s death and was elected as Fellow of the Medical Society of London in 1787 after the delivery of his first paper, “Some Account of the Effects of Lightning” describing the dermatological and neurological sequelae.  Parkinson’s published medical works demonstrate his keen observation, breadth of medical knowledge, and humble style.

Few details are actually known about Parkinson’s early medical training, but much can be inferred from his writings.  In The Hospital Pupil (1800), Parkinson outlines a “sound liberal education” for medical students including the study of Latin, Greek, shorthand, and drawing.  In contrast to the traditional medical system of apprenticeship and lectures, he espouses the following curriculum:
anatomy, natural philosophy, physiology, chemistry, physics, French and German in the first two years; clinical lectures during the third year; morbid anatomy and clinical work during the fourth year; and clinical work as a dressing pupil and lectures during the fifth year. 

Exhibiting “sympathetic concern and a tender interest for the sufferings of others…the object of which should be to mitigate or remove, one great portion of the calamities to which humanity is subject” were important traits.  In 1785, it is believed that Parkinson attended the lectures of John Hunter, English surgeon and experimentalist, and his shorthand notes were later transcribed by his son, John William Keys, in the Hunterian Reminiscences (1833).  In these notes, Parkinson cites Hunter’s depictions of tremor and paralysis, but it remains unknown whether he attended these specific lectures or was personally acquainted with John Hunter.

Photograph from the private collection of the late Dr. Robert Currier who generously gave his collection on James Parkinson to Dr. Christopher G. Goetz prior to death. It is believed that Dr. Currier took the photograph himself.

No. 1 Hoxton Square as it appears today

Photography courtesy of MDS Member, Jennifer G. Goldman.

No. 1 Hoxton Square
In Parkinson’s time, Hoxton Square located within the parish of St. Leonard’s Shoreditch, east of London, was a desirable location, home to many wealthy families with large houses and fashionable squares.  Hoxton also was known for its almshouses and madhouses, such as Holly House at which Parkinson was a medical attendant.  The late 18th century, however, brought industrial development, overcrowding, poverty and crime to Hoxton.  Although much damage occurred during World War II, art galleries and clubs have helped revitalize present day Hoxton.  Parkinson lived and practiced medicine at No. 1 Hoxton Square; a plaque designates his house, at one point a factory and now a popular restaurant and bar.

Figure 2, page 11 from Morris, A.D. (1989) James Parkinson His Life and Times. Rose, C. F. (ed.). Boston: Birkhäuser. With kind permission of Springer Science and Business Media.

St. Leonard's Church as it appears today

Photography courtesy of MDS Member, Jennifer G. Goldman.

St. Leonard’s Church
St. Leonard’s Church was a focal point in the Parkinson family.  Here James Parkinson was baptized, married, and buried.  The church was built by George Dance the elder in the 1730’s on the site of a former Norman church and completed in 1740.  Building of the church was complicated by a strike, replacement of local workers by Irish workers, and ensuing anti-Irish riots.  In 1817, St. Leonard’s became the first church in London to be lit by gaslight.  The church has been recently restored and houses an inscribed marble tablet, a gift by St. Leonard’s Hospital to commemorate Parkinson’s bicentennial in 1955.

No. 3 Pleasant Row, Kingsland Road
Parkinson died at the age of 69 years on December 21, 1824 at No. 3 Pleasant Row, Kingsland Road, Hoxton.  He suffered a stroke which affected his speech and use of his right side and died 3 days later.  He was buried in the churchyard of St. Leonard’s. Figure 3, page 12 from Morris, A.D. (1989) James Parkinson His Life and Times. Rose, C. F. (ed.). Boston: Birkhäuser. With kind permission
of Springer Science and Business Media.

A portion of the early 19th  century  painting, A busy skating scene with crowds of figures on a frozen lake, thought to be by J. Baber.  The figure in the foreground is wearing a coat with the words 'Humane Society' on the back. He was an employee of the Society known as an Iceman,  on hand to rescue anyone who might fall through the ice.

Receiving house of the
Royal Humane Society

With permission from

Ward of the receiving house of the
Royal Humane Society

With permission from

Royal Humane Society  
The Royal Humane Society, founded in London in 1774 by physicians, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, promoted resuscitation techniques, albeit controversial at the time, in response to the number of people mistakenly taken for dead as well as drownings in London waterways.  A system of “receiving houses” around the Westminster area served the drowning victims and other injured; a Hyde Park farmhouse was as an initial site for drowning rescues since swimming in the summer and ice-skating in the winter were popular.  Parkinson received the Society’s oldest award, the Silver medal (est. 1775) in 1777 for the rescue of a Hoxton man who tried to hang himself, a case reported by Parkinson’s father.

Frontpiece of The Hospital Pupil (1800) owned by CG Goetz, scanned at Rush University
Medical Center, Chicago, IL.  From the private collection of the late Dr. Robert Currier who generously gave his collection on James Parkinson’s to Dr. Christopher G. Goetz prior to death.

The Hospital Pupil
Parkinson wrote The Hospital Pupil (1800) as a letter advising an anonymous friend whose son contemplates a career in medicine.  Through these four missives, the reader gains insight into medical education in the 18th century.  Parkinson offers his opinions on medical education, prerequisites for medical and surgical careers, and development of superior study skills.  He concludes with advice on patient relations and business and legal aspects of medicine, including many principles that remain true today.

The portrait is a reduced copy by Henry Bone RA (1798) of an original portrait
painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA in the mid 1780s.

The Hunterian Reminiscences
Parkinson’s son, John William Keys, transcribed his father’s shorthand notes from Hunter’s lectures into a book, The Hunterian Reminiscences (1833).         

The following are Hunter’s descriptions of tremor:
A lady, at the age of seventy-one, had universal palsy: every part of the body shook which was not fully supported…but in sleep the vibratory motions of the muscles ceased, and the respiration was performed more equably; any endeavor of the will to alter these morbid actions increased them.
For instance, Lord L’s hands are almost perpetually in motion, and he never feels the sensation in them of being tired. When he is asleep his hands, &c. are perfectly at rest; but when he wakes in a little time they begin to move.(Hunter’s Croonian lecture on muscular motion 1776)

From Medical Classics, Vol 2, 1938.  Reproduced with permission
from Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.

Counterfeit Photograph of James Parkinson
Although no portrait of James Parkinson (1755-1824) exists, he has been described by Dr. Mantell as “rather below middle stature, with an energetic intellect, and pleasing expression of countenance, and of mild and courteous manners; readily imparting information, either on his favourite science, or on professional subjects.”  Furthermore, his works yield insights into his humble and inquisitive personality and his many interests and talents. 

This portrait, erroneously attributed to the author of the Essay of the Shaking Palsy when published in Medical Classics (1937-1938), really belongs to a British dentist by the same name who lived from 1815-1895.  Moreover, James Parkinson died in 1824 prior to the development of the first daguerreotype c. 1839.

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