Jon Stamford BSc, PhD, DSc

So much of what we think we know about James Parkinson is either untrue or at the very least, open to alternative interpretation.

We know he was born on 11 April 1755. We have his birth and baptism record to attest to that. And we know where he lived – 1 Hoxton Square. There is even a blue plaque to prove it. “James Parkinson 1755-1824 physician and geologist lived here”.

Nine words on the plaque and only four of them are correct. His dates and his name. Everything else is questionable. Let’s start with the location and the words “lived here”. Yes, he lived at 1 Hoxton Sq. Yes, there is a building at 1 Hoxton Sq today. Ergo this is where he lived, right? No it isn’t. He lived in a house built around 1700 with the same address. However by the early 1900s his house was derelict and subsequently torn down to be replaced by the current building. So, in the sense that he lived at the same address, okay. But he can hardly be said to have lived “here” if every part of the bricks and mortar he knew has gone.

It gets worse. Because not only is the new house nothing like the original, nor is its purpose. Whilst Parkinson’s Hoxton Square house dealt in treatments to make people feel better, the current occupancy probably does the opposite, selling tinctures of a different kind. It’s now a wine bar. James Parkinson would be turning in his grave, if we knew where that was. But I’ll get to that later.

So what else is wrong? And by the way I’m only just getting started. “Physician” is the next error, or at the very least a linguistic infelicity. Parkinson was not, in the 18th-century understanding of the word, a physician. He was an apothecary surgeon. “But he enrolled at the London Hospital in Whitechapel,” I hear you say. Yes, and then again no. He enrolled in 1776 for six months essentially to improve his surgical skills. He also took several classes of lectures, but at no point did he undertake any medical exams. Therefore he was not a physician.

You have to understand that medicine and surgery come from different lineages, in the UK at least. Medicine involved lotions and potions intended to correct systemic imbalances of the humours and maladies. Oh, and let’s not forget leeches. As in “take two leeches and call me in the morning”.

Surgery was a whole different kettle of fish. Surgeons were often barber surgeons on the questionable assumption that the skills required to style a fashionable haircut somehow also qualified you to lop off a limb. The surgeons of the 1750s were not physicians. Indeed historically that’s why in the UK doctors are Dr. Smith and surgeons are Mr. Jones.

Surgery at that time consisted of lancing boils, draining abscesses, and amputations and in these pre-anaesthetic days, surgeons were prized for their ability to work quickly. Although typically a leg amputation might take perhaps three minutes, some surgeons were significantly faster. The record at that time was held by one Joseph Liston who once removed a leg in 28 seconds. He routinely invited others in the theatre (don’t forget that operations were public spectacles – that’s why they are called operating theatres) to time him.

Speed of course is not always consistent with accuracy. In one of his operations, not only did Liston remove the patient’s leg but also his testicles. That probably took quite a bit of post-operative explaining – “well I’ve got some bad news and some bad news…” On another occasion, he also amputated three fingers of a surgical assistant, this mishap resulting in the death of both assistant and patient from post-operative infections as well as the loss of one observer who had a heart attack. A 300% mortality from a single operation. Surgery in the 18th century was haphazard at best.

But I digress. Back to the plaque. “Geologist” it reads. Was Parkinson a geologist? If his publications are anything to go by he was probably much less a geologist than a palaeontologist. Sure there is probably some overlap, but geology is more about rocks and minerals while palaeontology is concerned with fossils of previous lifeforms. I think of it more in practical terms. You hold a stone in your hand and hit it with a rock hammer. If it reveals a small fossil, then you are a palaeontologist (at that moment anyway). If you draw a blank and it’s just a rock then you are a geologist. In fairness, I could be pushing my luck with this kind of rough and ready distinction, but let’s roll with it.

On that set of criteria, Parkinson was very much a palaeontologist, first and foremost. He had several species of fossil, turtles and ammonites, named after him, not to mention the four books on palaeontology he wrote. Finding and identifying fossils was his passion and he often took his family with him on fossil hunting outings. His daughter Emma even coloured some of the diagrams in his books, to such a standard that they were then subsequently used by Parkinson’s friend Gideon Mantell, the discoverer of all those iguanodons in Maidstone, in his books.

As for being a geologist, well he did co-found the Geological Society of London. And also, “palaeontologist” probably wouldn’t fit on the plaque. Or be spelt correctly.

What the plaque omits to mention is Parkinson’s rather more questionable forays into politics. Not as a member of Parliament you understand, but as a political agitator, even to the extent of trying to foment rebellion. Publishing pamphlets with titles like “Revolutions without Bloodshed” doesn’t leave much wriggle room. He even found himself hauled before the Privy Council and the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, to explain his role or otherwise in the popgun plot of 1794, a supposed assassination plan for George III. Don’t forget that Louis XVI of France had been executed the previous year so the authorities were a little on edge. In any case, it all rather fizzled out over time. Parkinson was never charged, but I suspect it put paid to his chances of a knighthood. As if he cared.

So the blue plaque should read “James Parkinson 1755-1824 surgeon, palaeontologist and rebel lived at this address but not here exactly”.

We know where he was born and we know where he lived. We also know where died. Finally, we know where he’s buried. So we can go along and pay our respects if we wish?

Well, then again, not exactly.

Yes, we know where he was buried. But no, we don’t know where he is now. Let me explain. St. Leonards Shoreditch is the church in question – the church where he was hatched, matched, and dispatched so to speak (the location of his christening, marriage and obsequies). And the cemetery into which he was interred on 29 December 1824. So far so good.

People talk a lot about the dead and their “final resting place”. In this case it should be “final resting place until we need to widen the A10 and put up some more office buildings”. Which is exactly what happened at some stage in the intervening 197 years since his burial. The dead were exhumed and reburied. If there were any records on their “next resting place”, these are not known. Many of the dead were buried again below the nave of the church. Others were in the crypt. There may have been other locations.

Well if we don’t know where he is buried, at least we have the solace of knowing what he looked like. Right?

It’s not quite that simple, I’m afraid.

An image search on Google for “James Parkinson” comes up with – well do it yourself – a middle-aged man with moustache and beard and a slightly brusque demeanour. The kind of person you might anticipate to be a surgeon. The image appears on the websites of many important scientific and medical societies.

Despite our uncertainties on pretty much all aspects of his identification we can at least be certain on this. This image is NOT of James Parkinson. Or more accurately, it is not the James Parkinson we are looking for.

Let me explain.

James Parkinson died in 1824. The first photograph taken in Britain is of Lacock Abbey dated 1837, 13 years after the death of James Parkinson. Indeed the earliest photograph taken anywhere in the world is a view, albeit barely discernible any more, of the countryside near Saint Loupiac de Varennes. It was taken in 1827, still a minimum three years after his death.

So we draw a blank?

Not necessarily. No need to throw in the towel yet.

Parkinson, as we discussed, was very fond of pamphlets and published several of these during his lifetime, some political (Revolutions Without Bloodshed), some medical such as An Essay on the Shaking Palsy. We all know that one! Another of these more medically slanted salvoes, from 1804, entitled The Villager’s Friend And Physician, commonly referred to as “The Alehouse Sermon” is a tract on general health and “the promotion of domestic happiness”. Quite a broad brief by any standard. Parkinson’s recommendation was that the contents of the pamphlet be delivered by a village apothecary. A surprisingly prescriptive stipulation by any standard. But most unusually, and I believe the unique amongst his pamphlets, the frontispiece you comprised a cartoon of just such an apothecary delivering the sermon. Since the pamphlet contained his thoughts and he envisaged it being delivered by someone of the same profession as himself, it’s hard to conclude that the apothecary pictured is anybody other than James Parkinson himself.

We don’t have much else to go on. Descriptions of Parkinson are few and far between. One such description by Gideon Mantell, a fellow fossil finder described him as “rather below middle stature with an energetic intellect and pleasing expression of countenance, and of mild and courteous manner”. The kind of thing you might send to a dating agency. “In his spare time James enjoys digging for fossils and precipitating nationwide rebellion…”. Well, maybe not the last bit.

But before we accept this cartoon as the most authoritative image of Parkinson, perhaps even the only image of any credibility, there is one last avenue to investigate.

A part of the social fabric of London during the 18th and 19th centuries were the many guilds for professional men. The guilds represented the interests of their members whether butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and so on. They should provided a source of fellowship for their members but also had charitable purposes as well. Much as today in fact.

One of the more quirky and interesting guilds or clubs, founded in the early part of the 18th-century was the Guild of Odd Fellows, essentially a club for those who felt they did not fit particularly well with any of the existing professional or philosophical organisations. It provided similar facilities and had similar charitable aspirations but its members came from a range of different professions.

The club held regular meetings and dinners. These appear to have been fairly thirsty affairs. One such description at the time talked of meetings “in much revelry and, often as not, needed the calling of the watch to restore order”. We’ve all been to parties like that.

One such meeting, on 2 October 1789, was captured in a contemporary engraving by John Barlow. The scene depicted is very much one of revelry. The original is in the Royal College of Surgeons building.

The engraving also conveys a secret.

The Guild of Odd Fellows offered a fringe benefit of medical assistance to members. To this purpose they employed a surgeon for the benefit of members and their dependents. Naturally that surgeon would attend any of the functions laid on by the Guild. Such as the one drawn by John Barlow. At the back can be seen a man holding aloft a medicine bottle and a script, signifiers of the man’s status as surgeon.

James Parkinson had been awarded the Grand Diploma of the Company of Barber Surgeons in 1784 and the records of the Odd Fellows reveal that their surgeon at that time was none other than James Parkinson.

Comparison of the two images is interesting. Are they the same man, albeit 15 years apart? Both have a round face, pointed nose and sharp chin (he obviously left that out of his dating profile). The man on the left was 34 while the 1804 man looks older. He would have been 49. Neither image is definitive on its own. Two different personalities are portrayed, the one jovial, exuberant and full of youth and the other more sober and restrained. Which one is Parkinson? Are they both? Who knows.

In the end perhaps we should not be surprised by the absence of definitive images of James Parkinson. Parkinson did not seek celebrity in any understanding the word. When awarded the gold-medal of the Royal College of Surgeons, he might well have chosen to have his likeness rendered in oils as many such award winners have done since. But for Parkinson, the medal was honour enough.

He did not even name the condition he described after himself – it was left to Jean Martin Charcot to call it La Maladie de Parkinson in his honour. Parkinson has hidden his identity from us for over 200 years. Perhaps we should allow him his privacy.

Perhaps we need to accept that his face will always be uncertain. Maybe it’s time to let him rest in peace and accept the fact that he would not have stood up to be identified. His work did that for him.

Which leaves us with a single unfinished piece of business – who indeed is this man, the impostor if you will, who appears in all the internet searches? Enter Parkinson super sleuth Simon Stott who, in 2015, identified him as James Cumine Parkinson, an Irishman who originally hoped to enter medicine but failed the classics examination. He lived his own rather colourful for you life abroad, even seeking his fortune in the Australian goldrush of 1851 before spending his last years as a lighthouse keeper in Tasmania.

Thanks go to Cherry Lewis, Simon Stott and Andrew Lees who know far more than I of the life and times of James Parkinson. Go find their publications and enjoy. The facts are theirs, the speculations are all mine!