James Parkinson, paralysis agitans, Parkinson's Disease, Paraquat Dichloride, Swinish Multitudes, the Pop-Gun Plot, Dangerous Sports, Extraneous Fossils, Bach's St. Matthew's Passion

Plots, 'tis well known, are necessary tools
To lift up knaves, and scare believing fools!

Hi, I'm Ana, the Ethical Systems Nerd, with the April 11th episode of Nerd Nodes.

Today is the birthday, in 1755, of James Parkinson, who formally described the condition "paralysis agitans" which would eventually be named Parkinson's disease. Today is also World Parkinson's Day. Global cases of Parkinson's disease doubled between 1990 and 2015 to over 6 million cases worldwide, mostly due to a larger older population globally, but also very likely due to worsening environmental factors. Current lifetime risk of developing Parkinson's disease is 1 in 15, and increasing. One possible environmental factor is herbicides, like the incredibly toxic paraquat dichloride, which has been banned in China and the European Union, but whose use was re-approved for another 15 years by the United States' Environmental Protection Agency in October of 2020, after new data provided by the manufacturers reassured the agency there was no link between Parkinson's and the herbicide.

James Parkinson would no doubt be fighting to have paraquat and other toxic herbicides banned. The 1790s were a tumultuous time in British politics, in the aftermath of the American and French revolutions, and increasing political agitation would eventually lead to the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Spithead and More mutinies of Royal Navy sailors. Parkinson, having joined his father's private practice as an apothecary and surgeon, was also active politically. Parkinson secretly wrote several radical articles under the pseudonym "Old Hubert" for the London Corresponding Society on a variety of social issues such as unfair taxation, and the protection of vulnerable members of society. In 1793 he wrote "An Address, to the Hon. Edmund Burke from the Swinish Multitude", a highly satirical response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France in which Burke pretty much set the tone for the responses he would receive by referring to everyone of a lower class as a "Swinish multitude".

Parkinson would be dramatically outed as Old Hubert in front of Prime Minister William Pitt and the Privy Council when he was called as a defense witness in the Pop-Gun plot, in which several of his friends were accused of a plot to assassinate King George III with a hand-made poison dart gun. The whole plot turned out to be cooked up by a government informant, and everyone was eventually acquitted, but Parkinson had been shaken by his brush with treason and Old Hubert would not be heard from again.

Plots, 'tis well known, are necessary tools. To lift up knaves, and scare beliving fools! Then marvel not why Courtiers, in this season, in TRUTH find LIBEL, and in pop-guns-TREASON. ALARMS and PANICS ever must await. Those whom CORRUPTION lifts to haughty state. But should REFORM a People's Rights restore. Pop-gun REPORTS would fright GREAT MEN no more.

Parkinson focused on his medical career, frequently advocating for public welfare issues and writing both scientific works and popular science accessible to a general audience. In 1807 he wrote a book Dangerous Sports, A tale addressed to children, warning them against wanton, careless, or mischievous exposure to Situations, from which alarming injuries so often proceed. The book opens with the dramatic rescue of a small child by the mysterious Old Millson who, being poor and using crutches, lives like a hermit to avoid being taunted by cruel boys. Old Millson later visits to check up on the rescued boy and learn the source of the injury, which turns out to be riding an illicitly borrowed horse. In hearing that the father has merely asked his son to "be more careful in future", Old Millson responds "You have acted as parents too often do, you have treated this child as if he possessed the same knowledge you do yourself, and have, therefore, contented yourself with simply admonishing him not to repeat his fault, instead of furnishing his mind with that reasoning, which may convince him of the necessity of complying with your advice, when he shall be again beset with temptation. It should be considered that the only substitute for experience is instruction." The rest of the book is more charming gentle moralizing with intermittent lectures from Old Millson, tempting situations, and natural consequences. It ends with the revelation of the misadventures which led to Millson's own injuries.

Parkinson was clearly motivated by his own desire to learn, as well as to teach and share knowledge through his extensive writing. He was a critic of the apprenticeship system which he himself had gone through, and would write a book, The Hospital Pupil, on medical education which helped bring about important educational reforms in the Apothecaries Act of 1815. Parkinson developed an interest in Geology and Paleontology and went fossil hunting with his children, and frustrated by a lack of reference material in English, wrote and illustrated his "Organic Remains of a Former World. An examination of the mineralized remains of the vegetables and animals of the antediluvian world; generally termed extraneous fossils"

Parkinson's "An Essay on the Shaking Palsy" was published in 1817 and, while it was well received, it was his paleontological work for which he was best remembered in his own time. Parkinson was retiring, and would die following a stroke in 1824. His hope was that his detailed description of the condition would draw the medical community's attention to it, and towards the end of the 19th century, it would. In particular, the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot would study paralysis agitans extensively, and would successfully argue for it to be named Parkinson's disease.

Johann Sebastian Bach is buried in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany where he was the musical director from 1723 until his death in 1750. As part of the job, Bach wrote music for Good Friday services, including St Matthew's Passion, which may have premiered in 1727, on April 11.

Further Exploration

Further Exploration

Read up on EPA's paraquat decision from Modern Farmer, and how paraquat is used in conventional cotton farming.

Read the lyrics to Burke's Address to the SWINISH MULTITUDE to be sung to the tune of Derry Down, in The Columbian songster, or Jovial companion: being a collection of two hundred and twenty choice songs, selected from various volumes and detached parcels --of which near fifty are American productions.