Books in brief: The Enlightened Mr Parkinson by Cherry Lewis

"Lewis paints a vivid portrait of the life and times of a man of many talents"
April 13, 2017
The Enlightened Mr Parkinson, by Cherry Lewis (Icon Books, £20)

During the last two decades of the 18th century, the organisation of medical practice in Britain was changing from the three-way division of apothecaries, surgeons and physicians into the more familiar model of the general practitioner and specialist consultant. This change was driven largely by the competition for fee-paying patients, explains Cherry Lewis in her biography of James Parkinson, after whom Parkinson’s disease is named.

Starting out as an apothecary, by the time of his death in December 1824 Parkinson was a highly respected surgeon and a medical pioneer. Born in Hoxton in April 1755, his life spanned a period of great upheaval wrought by the industrial revolution and the burgeoning of science and technology. Against this backdrop, Lewis paints a vivid portrait of the life and times of a man of many talents.

A political radical who supported the French Revolution, Parkinson was a noted collector of fossils, who helped reveal a distant past when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Acute observational powers enabled him to make associations others missed. So it was that in June 1817, aged 62, he published a paper that first identified and described the symptoms that defined the “shaking palsy,” known to us as Parkinson’s disease: “Involuntary tremulous motion, with lessened muscular power, in parts [limbs] not in action and even when supported; with a propensity to bend the trunk forward, and to pass from a walking to a running pace: the senses and intellects being uninjured.” This is a fine, informative read.