April 11 – Doctor, doctor!

Today’s Factismal: James Parkinson, the doctor who first described the disease that bears his name, was born 261 years ago today.

One of the highest honors in medicine is having a disease named after you. Though television and movies often make it seem as if diseases are named after athletes and other photogenic types, they are actually named after the first person who describes the disease in enough detail for it to be found by other physicians. And one of the best and earliest examples of this is Parkinson’s disease, which is named after James Parkinson.

Dr. Parkinson(Image courtesy Parkinson's & Movement Disorders Group)

Dr. Parkinson
(Image courtesy Parkinson’s & Movement Disorders Institute)

James was born on April 11, 1755. He was one of those people that had too much ability to constrain himself to one field, working as an apothecary surgeon, a paleontologist, a geologist, and a politician. In between bouts of agitating for universal sufferage and popular representation, James collected fossils from around England and eventually published one of the first sets of books classifying the fossils into different types similar to the way that living animals are classified. He and his son published the first description of appendicitis in English, and worked on several treatises promoting public health. His many contributions to science have been honored with a red tulip, known as the James Parkinson cultivar.

But his most famous work was a meticulous study describing six cases of what he called “a shaking palsy”. James observed these patients during their daily routines, including eating, walking, and other activities, and was able to describe how the disease progressed. Published in 1817, the treatise soon became the standard for diagnosing the disease; in 1863, the disease was named in his honor.

Parkinson’s disease remains a problem today. No true cure exists even though several approaches, including surgery that was tried for the first time on April 11, 1953, and drugs that alleviate the symptoms, have been developed. Treatment today focuses on management of the symptoms and improving the patient’s quality of life. Thanks to improvements in our knowledge of the disease, patients survive seven years longer and with much higher quality of life.

But progress depends on getting honest and open feedback from the patients and their caregivers. If you’d like to help researchers with their work on Parkinson’s, or any of a number of other diseases, then head on over to Patients Like Me, where you can track your disease, find support, and share your stories with researchers. Who knows? You may inspire the next James Parkinson to find a cure!

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