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Monday, April 12, 1999 Published at 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK


The origins of the shaking palsy

Michael J Fox of Back to the Future fame has Parkinson's Disease

Dr James Parkinson was better known in his time for his work on fossils than for his essay on "the shaking palsy".

But it was this that would make his name famous around the globe two centuries after he was born.

The multi-talented GP is the name behind Parkinson's disease, the progressive neurological disorder whose sufferers include Muhammad Ali and film star Michael J Fox.

It can affect all aspects of a person's life and occurs when cells in the part of the brain which controls movement are lost.

Shaking palsy

Born in London in 1755, Dr Parkinson studied Latin, Greek, natural philosophy and shorthand - subjects which he considered as important basic tools for a physician.

His father was a GP and he took over his practice.

Dr Parkinson was by no means a typical GP. He had wide-ranging interests and, in his day, was probably better known for his three volume work on fossils than for his essay on the "shaking palsy".

Other medical works included a treatise on gout and he also published books on social, political and geological subjects.

He was extremely interested in bringing medicine to the masses and published a selection of self-help manuals aimed at encouraging people to adopt better sanitary standards.

His political beliefs were fairly revolutionary.

At a time when the French revolution was taking place, he advocated universal suffrage and an annual parliament.

However, it is for his "Essay on the shaking palsy", published in 1817 - 11 years before his death, that he has become universally known.


He was the first person to make an accurate description of the disorder which affects one in 500 people in the UK.

Its symptoms include shaking, slowness of movement and muscle stiffness.

Despite Dr Parkinson's success in describing the condition, his work was only recognised by French neuropathologist Dr Jean Martin Charcot 60 years after it was first published.

And it was not until the second half of the 20th century that scientists discovered what caused the disease.

They found that the lack of a chemical messenger called dopamine was responsible.

The symptoms of Parkinson's only appear after the death of 80% of the cells which produce dopamine which is linked to co-ordination.

Currently, the condition is treated with drugs which mimic the action of the chemical messengers.

Patients also often turn to alternative therapies. For example, massage has been found to be very helpful in the treatment of the disease.

Liz Cockerill, who has Parkinson's, told Radio Four's A Name to Remember programme: "It has been a life saver for me. Otherwise my muscles would just seize up."

In the last few years, there have been significant advances in the treatment of late stage Parkinson's.

For example, dopamine can now be injected and pacemakers have been fitted into some patients' brains with interesting results.

Some doctors predict there could be a cure or a preventive treatment for the disease in the next 20 years once scientists understand its genetic and environmental triggers.

They believe "a window of opportunity" exists between the time the cells start dying and the time symptoms begin to show.

This week has been named Parkinson's Awareness Week by the Parkinson's Disease Society.

A Name to Remember is about the names behind major diseases and is being run on BBC Radio Four at 3.30pm BST from 12 to 16 April.

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