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Parkinson of the disease

Guy's Hospital Physical Society Minutes, 1786

Opening showing an extract from the Guy’s Hospital Physical Society archives, showing James Parkinson’s accession as an honorary member on 18 February 1786Opening showing an extract from the Guy’s Hospital Physical Society archives, showing James Parkinson’s accession as an honorary member on 18 February 1786Although James Parkinson’s political activity was limited to a few years in the 1790s, its origins lay in his well-attested humanitarian compassion for the less fortunate. During his career he would have witnessed the significant demographic expansion of Shoreditch and its environs, with its attendant social problems. He would also have been aware of ongoing radical political activity, both as a consequence of John Wilkes’s agitation and arising from discontent with Britain’s war with the American colonies.

Parkinson’s career as a political pamphleteer spanned the years 1792-96, when he was also active as a member of the committee of the London Corresponding Society (LCS). This organisation, in concert with other societies throughout Britain, agitated for the enfranchisement of all adult males and other constitutional reforms.

It was founded in 1792, and continued until it was suppressed by the government of William Pitt the Younger in 1799. The LCS, whose estimated membership at its peak was 5,000, was distinctive because the subscription was only a penny a week. It marked the first entry of artisans, tradesmen and the lower reaches of the professions into political life, a domain which, since the restriction of the monarch’s powers by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, had been reserved exclusively for a landed oligarchy.

The LCS confined itself to proposing constitutional reforms, including the suffrage for all adult males (thus foreshadowing the demands of the Chartists in the 1830s), distanced itself from the republicanism of Thomas Paine, and was careful not to attack the idea of property.

As Parkinson had a defined occupation, he had much to lose from the probable consequences of social ostracism, which often followed at that time from engagement in radical political activism. In addition, during this period Parkinson suffered much from gout. Other members of the LCS, such as the tailor Francis Place and the shoemaker Thomas Hardy, were in an even more vulnerable position. In 1794, when one agent provocateur had implicated several members of the LCS in an apparent plot to assassinate King George III, Parkinson displayed exemplary courage in his testimony to the Privy Council.

This testimony could have resulted in his imprisonment or transportation. He did so again in 1796, during the trial of one of those accused in this plot. After this time, his political activity ceased, but his social conscience did not.

The extract reproduced here, from the archives of the Guy’s Hospital Physical Society shows James Parkinson’s accession as an honorary member on 18 February 1786. On this occasion, the surgeon Astley Cooper (1768-1841) was in the chair. At this time, Cooper, like Parkinson, was involved in radical politics, but, unlike Parkinson, would renounce his opinions before the end of the century. Although Parkinson was not actively involved in politics after the 1790s, there is no evidence that he changed his views fundamentally.

A great number of scientific, philosophical and medical societies prospered during the 18th century, of which the most famous (and arguably most atypical) was the Birmingham Lunar Society. Guy’s Hospital Physical Society was the first such medical society constituted in London. Although Parkinson may have been unusual in the depth and breadth of his interests and institutional affiliations, more and more professional and commercial men of some prosperity were willing to devote their leisure to self-improving activities.

The Guy’s Hospital Physical Society (founded in 1771) helped to remedy the absence in London of university medical instruction. Its lectures and library would have been frequented not only by already established practitioners, but also by medical students. The more conscientious students would have used its facilities to supplement their apprenticeship and their experience of surgery gained by ‘walking the wards’ of a hospital as a pupil or dresser of an experienced surgeon. Until at least 1793, its concerns extended beyond medicine and into areas of philosophical and political controversy.

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