We should remember James Parkinson for more than the disease that bears his name

200 years ago, the iconic doctor published his paper discribing a now well known disease. But his other pamphlets were of a more revolutionary nature...

Cherry Lewis
3 April 2017

by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, hand-coloured etching and aquatint, published 20 April 1798

This year, on World Parkinson’s Disease Day (11 April), we commemorate 200 years since publication of a medical classic – James Parkinson’s Essay on the Shaking Palsy, the condition now known as Parkinson’s disease. Written towards the end of Parkinson’s life, his name has been immortalised through the disease he identified.

But there is another, untold, story about this man which is even more remarkable.

James Parkinson (1755–1824) lived and practised as an apothecary surgeon in Hoxton, then on the northern outskirts of London. It was a time when epidemics stalked the cities, infant mortality was fifty percent (Parkinson lost three of his own seven children) and no anaesthetics were available for those needing surgery. Parkinson devoted his life attending to the poor – and fought defiantly for their right to vote.

Following the French Revolution in 1789, a long list of grievances meant many in Britain were sympathetic to their revolutionary comrades in France: they were subject to laws made by a government that the vast majority had no say in electing (only 2 per cent of the population could vote); workers were not paid a living wage; heavy taxes were imposed to finance a war they did not support, and men carried off to fight in those wars without notice or compensation. At the same time, men of influence appointed their friends to positions of power and gave themselves generous lifelong pensions, paid for from the public purse.

With no formal way of registering their discontent, many political societies emerged in order to lobby for a reform of Parliament and the working man’s right to vote. The most significant of these was the London Corresponding Society (LCS) which Parkinson joined in 1792, soon after its inauguration.

Having a flair for writing, Parkinson soon rose through the ranks and joined the Corresponding Committee which drafted and revised the pamphlets used by the LCS to communicate its ideas across the country. Sold for a penny or so, many thousands were published, stirring the collective consciousness and acting as a clarion call to action.

The government, terrified such publications would invoke a French-style uprising, issued a Royal Proclamation calling on magistrates to search out the authors, publishers and distributors of such works and punish them accordingly. To facilitate these directives, magistrates set up a network of spies instructed to infiltrate political societies and report on their activities. Those found guilty of sedition faced years of imprisonment, even transportation to Australia.

Despite the Proclamation – or perhaps because of it – Parkinson, together with his friend Daniel Eaton, decided that was now was the time to enter this dangerous arena. Eaton had just acquired a printing press and Parkinson provided the material. Writing under the pseudonym ‘Old Hubert’, Parkinson’s pamphlets loudly disapproved of the king and government, criticised the war with France, and demanded a reform of parliament.

As membership of these radical societies spread, the government feared the country was on the brink of revolution and suspended Habeas Corpus. Immediately 13 leading members of the LCS and another such society were arrested. Without hesitation, Parkinson stepped into the breach, accepting nomination to an Emergency Committee and writing another pamphlet, the proceeds from which went to support the families of the men in prison.

Revolutions without Bloodshed was Parkinson’s most outspoken work yet. In it he listed 24 benefits he considered a reform of parliament would bring, several of which still resonate today:

  • - Taxes might be proportioned to the abilities of those on whom they are levied, and not made to fall heavier on the poor than the rich
  • - … due PROVISION be made for the aged and disabled
  • - Families that are comparatively starving might be exempted from contributing [taxes] …
  • - Workmen might no longer be punished for uniting to obtain an increase of wages …
  • - Differences [in] RELIGIOUS MATTERS might not exclude men from enjoying the same benefits with their Fellow-Citizens.

He ended with an accusation of ‘TRAITORS! TRAITORS! TRAITORS!’ hurled at the government.

Soon after, three of Parkinson’s close associates in the LCS were arrested, accused of plotting to kill the King. Parkinson suspected the charge had been invented by a spy tasked with fabricating the plot in order to disgrace the LCS. As the Privy Council was to determine if there was sufficient evidence for a trial, Parkinson immediately informed them he was willing, under oath, to put evidence of his friends’ innocence before them.

In the prevailing political climate, it was an extremely brave thing to do. If he was unable to convince them with his testimony, he ran the risk of being implicated in the plot himself, when just imagining the king’s death was high treason and punishable by death.

During his interrogation Parkinson audaciously refused to answer questions that might ‘criminate’ him, and was forced to reveal he was the author of Revolutions without Bloodshed. Nevertheless, he was eventually allowed to go home. As a popular and well-known figure, Parkinson’s arrest might have led to a surge of sympathy for the reform movement, a risk the government could not take. 

Unfortunately his testimony did little to help his friends. With the suspension of Habeas Corpus there was no pressure to bring them to trial so they languished in dreadful prison conditions for almost two years. In the event, both they and the 13 previously arrested were found ‘Not Guilty’ and released, to the government’s acute embarrassment. Despite this, the authorities continued to suppress the reform societies and new laws soon placed even more severe restrictions on their activities.

Parkinson did not live to see any reform of parliament, but his story is a remarkable account of someone prepared to stand up for his beliefs, regardless of the consequences. A friend described him as a “worthy citizen who did not scruple to come forward in the midst of danger”, and there were many like him.

So, we should remember Parkinson not just for the disease that bears his name, but also for the risks he took on our behalf. And when we are pondering whether to vote or not, because it’s raining or we just can’t be bothered, think where democracy would be today if it hadn’t been for people like him.

The Enlightened Mr Parkinson by Cherry Lewis is published by Icon Books in April 2017.

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