Parkinson's Medical & Scientific Contributions

In addition to An Essay on the Shaking Palsy, Parkinson made numerous other contributions to medicine and science.  Environmental injuries and accidents comprise a common theme in his works.  Highlights of his early medical career include his first paper, “Some Account of the Effects of Lightning” (1789) and his rescue missions for the Royal Humane Society.  Potential dangers and injuries associated with childhood play and pranks are enumerated in the serious but artistic literary tale, Dangerous Sports (1808). 

Parkinson’s medical works included handbooks for the lay public and scientific reports of medical problems ranging from hydrophobia to trismus.  He sought to improve the general medical and social welfare of laborers with better designed trusses.  His monograph on gout not only shares medical information on gout but also personal experiences with his father’s and his own afflictions with gout.  Furthering the Parkinson medical tradition, he published works on fever wards and appendicitis with his son, John Parkinson. 

Parkinson was well known in the fields of chemistry and geology.  His interest in chemistry sparked a fascination with geology and led to his acquisition and scientific analysis of specimens from the London terrain.  He amassed a notable collection of fossils, shells, metals, coins, and medals at No. 1 Hoxton Square.  As a renowned oryctologist, Parkinson was a founding member of the Geological Society in 1807.  His first book on geology, Organic Remains of a Former World (1804) became a standard text on paleontology for half a century.  In a style similar to other works, Parkinson composed Organic Remains in letter format rather than scientific chapters to appeal to a more general readership.

From Domart Y., Garet E.  Lichtenberg Figures Due to A Lightning Strike.
Images in Clinical Medicine.  N Engl J Med 2000;343:1536.
Copyright© 2000 Massachusetts Medical Society.  All rights reserved.

Some Account of the Effects of Lightning
In his first paper, “Some Account of the Effects of Lightning” read before the Medical Society of London in 1789, Parkinson describes the acute effects of lightning injury in two men struck in Shoreditch.  He reports neurological deficits of lower extremity paralysis and dermatological stigmata with erythematous ferning, now known as keraunoparalysis and Lichtenberg figures, respectively.

Adapted from the cover of Dangerous Sports a tale by James Parkinson (1808).
Private Collection of MDS Member, Christopher G. Goetz, MD, Chicago, IL
and a gift from the late Dr. Robert Currier.  

Dangerous Sports
This tale features an old cripple named Millson who saves young George Henneth lying in the snow with a head wound and hypothermia due to a horse riding injury.  An invited guest at the rescued boy’s birthday party, old Millson lectures the mischievous children on potential dangers and injuries associated with their pranks.  Instead of playing with gun-powder and pistols, jumping from high places, throwing snowballs with hidden pebbles, walking on frozen ponds, and tasting unknown medications, Millson offers constructive alternatives for safe and productive play:

…[instead] perform some act of real ingenuity, calling the powers of the mind into action; or some feat of useful dexterity, and let him then be imitated…may it be tried who can get most lines by rote in a certain space of time; who can spell the most difficult words, or who can most readily find the corresponding words, in French, or Latin.

Frontpages of Parkinson’s handbooks.  Private Collection of MDS Member,
Christopher G. Goetz, MD, Chicago, IL and a gift from the late Dr. Robert Currier.  

The Villager’s Friend and Physician (1800), The Town and Country Friend and Physician (1803), and Medical Admonitions to Families (1803)
These similar but complementary handbooks for lay people were intended to teach families to recognize signs and symptoms of both minor and major illnesses.  As a result, Parkinson hoped that people would avoid seeking unnecessary medical treatment for common, minor ailments and not delay medical intervention in more serious illnesses.  Other sections deal with parenting and health preservation.  The table of contents enumerates alphabetically listed signs and symptoms in a range of illnesses with accompanying text passages.  Neurological conditions are the focus of several entries:

Convulsions: Of the whole body, with frothing at the mouth, and total loss of sensibility, characterize Epilepsy, of the Falling Sickness; so termed from the subjects of this disease falling suddenly on the coming on of the fit…With a sensation as if a ball was rising in the throat, flutterings and rumblings in the bowel, show the disease to be Hysterics.

Stupor: After wounds, or blows on the head, requires particular attention.

Frontpages of Parkinson’s handbooks.  Private Collection of MDS Member,
Christopher G. Goetz, MD, Chicago, IL and a gift from the late Dr. Robert Currier.

Hints for the Improvement of Trusses (1802)
This tract on trusses for the laboring poor is both a medical and social work.  Parkinson describes the diagnosis and development of hernias and the dangers of hernia ruptures.  From a social perspective, he expresses his outrage that trusses, subject to patent and monopoly, were not readily affordable or available to laborers.  In response, he provides instructions for the design of a device made from simple objects such as sticks, rope, and a belt that functions as a truss.

 To obtain this necessary degree of pressure, many ingenious instruments have been contrived; but which, unfortunately, have constantly possessed this one fault, of being beyond the reach of a poor man’s purse. Shocking reflection! that the honest labourer should suffer under a calamity, produced, not by indulgence in indolence, nor by the gratification of vice; but by those meritorious exertions of industry, on which, perhaps, the very existence of civil society depends, should have to expect a death of inexpressible torture from the want of an instrument, the cost only of a few shillings.

Adapted from A Case of Diseased Appendix Vermiformis by James Parkinson (1816). Private Collection of MDS Member, Christopher G. Goetz, MD, Chicago, IL
and a gift from the late Dr. Robert Currier.

A “Case of diseased appendix vermiformis” was published by James Parkinson and his son, John Parkinson, in Transactions of the Medical and Chirurigical Society in 1816.  This brief report describes the clinical and pathological features of 5 year old boy who died from appendicitis. 

Gout by James Gillary, 1799.

Parkinson describes his own symptoms as well as medical information on gout in the octavo volume of 174 pages, Observations on the Nature and Cure of Gout (1805).  He outlines causes of gout, such as “indulgences in acids,” alcohol, and hereditary factors, advocates gout as a constitutional disease, and dismisses refrigeration or cooling techniques in the treatment of gouty attacks, in contrast to contemporary, popular theories and treatments.

…At 38 years of age he experienced the first attack of gout in the ball of the right foot: this, however, was so slight as not to occasion more than a week’s inconvenience…In the summer of the year following, having walked a little way out of town, drank nearly a pint of wine, and being exposed to a heavy rain in the evening, he awoke about three o’clock in the morning in such severe pain in the instep of the right foot, as excluded all hopes of regaining sleep.

View of the Old Sick Ware of St. John's Hospital, Bruges
By Johannes Beerblock

This Uniform represents the 'state of the art' protection
for the 'visiting nurse', in the patient's home, against fever.
Described as the 'fever proof uniform' it covers most of the body -
but note that the nurse does not wear gloves and the 'mask' was probably
ineffective as well.

Fevers and Fever Wards
Parkinson was instrumental in constructing a fever block in the workhouse infirmary in 1819 with the Guardians of the Poor after witnessing epidemics of typhus fever in the overcrowded houses of Hoxton.  With his son, John W. K. Parkinson, he published an article, “On the Treatment of Infectious or Typhoid Fever” in the London Medical Repository (1824) illustrating improved treatments and nursing care.

Photo of the title page from Chemical Pocket Book (1800). Private Collection
of MDS Member, Christopher G. Goetz, MD, Chicago, IL
and a gift from the late Dr. Robert Currier.

Chemical Pocket Book
Parkinson wrote his Chemical Pocket Book (1800) as a short book for beginners to complement the well-known late 18th century chemistry texts.  He presented up to date information on chemical properties of elements, earths, calorics, light, gases, alkalis, acides, metals, stones, vegetables, and animal substances.  Parkinson published four editions (the last in 1807) of the Chemical Pocket Book, each increasing in length, knowledge, and tables.

Fossil Species Named After Parkinson
Parkinson is also remembered eponymously in geological circles.  The species Nautilus Parkinsoni was named post-humously by F. E. Edward in recognition of Parkinson’s research on the mechanisms of the Nautilus’ siphuncle.  Other fossils named for him include the crinoid Apiocrinuxs parkinsoni, ammonite Parkinsonia parkinsoni, gastropod Rostellaria parkinsoni, and stemless palm Nipa parkinsoni.

Adapted from Outlines of Oryctology – An Introduction to the Study
of Fossil Organic Remains
(1822).  Private Collection of MDS Member,
Christopher G. Goetz, MD, Chicago, IL and a gift from the late Dr. Robert Currier.  

Parkinson studied geology, particularly the area of paleontology then known as oryctology, at a fertile time of scientific advancement regarding fossils and rocks, “The Heroic Age of Geology,” from 1790 to 1820.  He collected and studied specimens acquired in the gravel and clay pits of Shoreditch and Hackney.  With his chemistry background, Parkinson designed the muriatic acid test to find animal fossils embedded in limestone.  Parkinson’s works on oryctology including the three volume, 1146 page Organic Remains of a Former World (1804) and Outlines of Oryctology (1822) were accompanied by hundreds of detailed illustrations of fossils, many drawn from his personal collection.

Parkinson hoped that Outlines of Oryctology. An Introduction to the Study of Fossil Organic Remains (1822), published two years before his death, would be a useful guide for paleontology students and a humble adjunct to “Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales,” by the Rev. W. D. Conybeare and W. Phillips, a comprehensive work published shortly before Parkinson’s text.

British Museum (Natural History) at South Kensington ca, 1880

British Museum (Natural History) Central Hall, 1881.

Museum Collections
Parkinson acquired an extensive collection of fossils, shells, minerals, coins, and medals that were housed at No. 1 Hoxton Square.  After his death, many of these were auctioned and acquired by British museums such as the British Museum (Natural History) and Universities of Cambridge and Oxford.  In addition to fossils and geological specimens, copies of Parkinson’s 18 natural history sale catalogues from 1798 to 1808 are preserved in the Zoology Library of the British Museum (Natural History). 

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