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Parkinson of the disease

Organic remains

Title page of Organic remains of a former world, volume 2Title page of Organic remains of a former world, volume 2Parkinson’s Organic remains of a former world (published in 3 volumes in 1804, 1807 and 1811) was a milestone in the history of palaeontology. In the words of Martin Rudwick, the historian of geology, it was ‘the first substantial illustrated book on fossils published in England.’

Like The hospital pupil, Parkinson intended Organic remains of a former world to be a popular work. Written in the epistolary form, it introduces the subject through an imaginary conversation between two protagonists who are travelling in a horse and chaise on their way out of London on a fossil-collecting expedition.

The ‘extraneous fossils’ of its title distinguish natural objects, such as ore and minerals found in the ground (the original meaning of the term fossil), from ‘extraneous or adventitious’ evidence of organic remains.

These large and relatively expensive volumes were published in a second edition in 1833, and were thus more commercially successful than An essay on the shaking palsy (see Case 7), which was not re-issued in the 19th century. As the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica put it in 1911, Parkinson’s reputation rested on his being an ‘English palaeontologist.’  

Parkinson focusses on the descriptive and classificatory features of hundreds of fossils from all over England, reflecting the influence of the comparative anatomical method of his teacher, John Hunter. He also reports on their topographical origins.

Back grinding teeth of the Ohio mammothBack grinding teeth of the Ohio mammothHis own grounding in the sciences, especially chemistry, was pressed into service in his experiments and attempts to delineate the properties of fossils. He examined them with lenses, cut them into different sections, heated them and subjected them to various chemicals.

He acquainted English-speaking readers for the first time with the works of major natural historians such as Buffon, Cuvier and Lamarck. He accepted their conclusions, that extinction of species had occurred, but retained a Biblical scheme of creation by endorsing the notion that each day of creation must have been an indeterminately long period of time.

The image to the left (from volume 3 of Organic remains of a former world) shows the back grinding teeth of the controversial ‘Ohio mammoth’. The naturalist Buffon had suspected this specimen to be an example of an extinct species, a theory which had been controversial.

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