A biography of the doctor who first defined the “debilitating condition” that has become “one of the most familiar of all neurological disorders.”
In 1817, British surgeon James Parkinson (1755-1824) described the symptoms of a frightening neurodegenerative disease, the second most common after Alzheimer’s. He was a Renaissance man who tried his hand at natural history and politics, and British geologist and historian Lewis (The Dating Game: One Man’s Search for the Age of the Earth, 2000) turns this into a fine biography of a colorful figure who lived in a turbulent era. In 18th-century Britain, the term “doctor” referred to a university-trained physician. Having a lower status but an arduous apprenticeship, surgeons like Parkinson were called “Mister,” but their responsibilities overlapped. Medical practitioners of the time were ignorant, but they didn’t think so. A card-carrying member of the Enlightenment, Parkinson shared the movement’s belief in progress and experimental research, but, unlike 18th-century physical science, medicine remained a slave to ancient theories. Readers will squirm as Parkinson and his colleagues bleed, blister, purge, and poison patients with a confidence that gave the surgeon a nationwide reputation that he burnished with a steady stream of scientific papers and books, including a bestseller of popular health advice. He was, however, an acute observer, and his slim 1817 monograph, An Essay on the Shaking Palsy, became a medical classic for its detailed, insightful depiction of the malady given the name Parkinson’s disease—but not until 50 years later. Fascinated by fossils, he assembled a world-class collection and helped found the Geological Society of London in 1807, the world’s first.
Parkinson’s overall contributions to medicine may be trivial except for a name, but Lewis delivers an appealing, often gruesome account of the life of a workaholic, highly respected physician from a far-off time.