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Parkinson’s – 200 Year Anniversary and Five Great Men

Posted on: 06 April 2017

Dr James Parkinson (1755 – 1824)

After whom the condition is named, published the 66 page Essay on the Shaking Palsy in 1817.

At that time the value and accuracy were not widely recognised by the medical fraternity. It was a descriptive piece of work resulting from the observation of six people affected by the symptoms we now recognise as the cardinal signs of Parkinson’s. This was not the first description of tremor but it was the first which combined the signs and symptoms and related them to a progressive neurological condition. Parkinson’s interests and talents were not confined to this condition as he was a dedicated political reformer and a nature lover.

There are no photos of Dr James Parkinson but he was described as:

‘rather below middle stature with an energetic, intelligent with a pleasing expression. He had mild and courteous manners- readily imparting information either on his favourite science or on professional subjects.’

Jean- Martin Charcot (1825-1893)

The value of Dr Parkinson’s publication was highlighted by the French neurologist Jean- Martin Charcot (1825-1893) who worked at Salpetriere Hospital, Paris. This renowned hospital specialised in neurological conditions with over 3,000 neurology patients which lead to Charcot’s interest in James Parkinson’s epistle. It was Charcot who noticed that not all people with Parkinson’s had tremor and this added to his argument that this condition should not be called The Shaking Palsy and he proposed the name Parkinson ’s disease. This ensured that James Parkinson lived on in history.

Dr Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

Over the next century there were few advances until the emergence of a great British neurologist and man of words, Dr Oliver Sacks (1933-2015). He described the patients in Beth Abraham Hospital New York, who had been left with severe neurological problems after surviving an outbreak of encephalitis lethargia in the 1920’s. This resembled Parkinson’s and he described the symptoms and their response to a trial of massive doses of the newly discovered drug- levodopa. This famous book Awakenings was subsequently made into a memorable film of the same name.

Muhammed Ali (1942-2016)

The next memorable Parkinson’s personality was not a writer or a doctor but he ‘moved like a butterfly and stung like a bee’. Who can forget the sight of Muhammed Ali (1942- 2016) lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta. His legacy is the publicity he gave to the condition and the founding of many Ali Parkinson’s centres worldwide.

Michael J Fox (1961-present)

Michael J Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, aged just 29.  He has become an advocate and activist for Parkinson’s, establishing the Michael J Fox Foundation and has invested over $650 million in Parkinson’s research.  Fox also regularly shares candid stories of his experience with Parkinson’s, including ‘why Parkinson’s makes him laugh – and why Muhammad Ali made him cry’ and how he is ‘still smiling after 26 years with Parkinson’s.’

There are many other personalities associated with Parkinson’s, recommended reading is Brain Storms by Jon Palfreman

11 April 2017 marks the two hundred year anniversary of the publication ‘An Essay on the Shaking Palsy’ written by the English physician and chemist James Parkinson who was born in 1755.

This pioneering work established the foundations to enable an understanding of the symptoms related to the condition of tremors, rigidity and slowness of movement. After his death in 1824, and in recognition of his contribution, the condition became known as ‘Parkinson’s Disease’.

This article was written by Senior Parkinson’s Nurse Specialist Janet McLeod and is a snapshot of the Seminar: A History of Parkinson’s Janet presented at on Saturday 8 April in Nedlands for the Parkinson’s 200 year anniversary.  A recording of this seminar will be available soon, if you would like to be notified please email: info@parkinsonswa.org.au