King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Parkinson of the disease

Charcot's lectures

Opening showing gait of patient at Salpêtrière HospitalOpening showing gait of patient at Salpêtrière HospitalJean-Martin Charcot (1825-93), physician to the Salpêtrière Hospital, professor of pathological anatomy and later of neurology at the University of Paris, was the most distinguished neurologist of the 19th century.

Charcot sought both to delineate the variants of Parkinson’s disease and to differentiate them from symptoms caused by diseases of the spinal cord.

Charcot first referred to James Parkinson’s description of the disease in some detail in 1862, in a paper he co-authored with Edmé Vulpian, subsequently claiming it was from that time ‘that this disease obtained the right of domicile in classic works.’

Charcot was struck by his patients’ rigidity, slowness of movement, overall flexed posture, and their tendency to fall forwards and backwards, which he termed propulsion and retropulsion.

He criticised Parkinson’s Latinate term, paralysis agitans, as he saw no evidence of significant weakness caused by the condition and knew of some patients with no tremor. He preferred ‘la maladie de Parkinson’, a term which caught on in France some 50 years earlier than in the Anglophone world.

Charcot, who called himself ‘un visuel’, believed that visualisation of medical conditions in images, words and objects was a fundamental skill in clinical research and practice. The appendix to the volume featured here includes a case report on a patient who was called ‘Gavr- Anne-Marie’.

In the reproduction shown above, she is depicted by the resident physician-artist to the Salpêtrière, Paul Richer, who later became the director of the hospital’s laboratory and professor of anatomy at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.

About her gait Charcot said that she propelled herself forward 'as it were, compelled…in a quick pace…apparently forced to follow a flying centre…’ The condition had commenced when her ‘third son, of whom she was particularly fond, unexpectedly told her one day that he had enlisted as a soldier. This news greatly afflicted her [and] she wept over it’, after which her right arm became weak and trembled, the left arm afterwards being affected in the same way. 

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