Episode 8 of The Quiet Revolutionary: the heroic role played in a Plot to Assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of, Series 4 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtimes Stories from See Through News’ podcast
In Episode 8, Series 4 A Different Kind of Activism, we find what our hero did, following his extraordinary intervention to save his friends from hanging for treason….
Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter
Audio Production by Samuel Wain
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- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar: the only deep sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 2: Betrayed: a tale of Christmas spiritual pollution
- Series 3: Life on the Edge: Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
- Series 5: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke, Told Thrice
- Series 6: Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance
Life, and the British justice system, are a bit messier than Hollywood scripts.
After James volunteered his testimony to the Privy Council, John Smith the Bookseller, George Higgins the Chemist’s Shop-Man, and their London Corresponding Society co-accused remained in the Tower of London for months.
But the Physician from Hoxton’s testimony in this trial turned public opinion.
Eventually, all charges were dropped, his friends were released from the Tower as free men, and, well – now you can imagine whatever Hollywood moment you like.
If you like real reality, if you’re OK with nuance, would you like to know what actually happened when James left the Privy Council courtroom that day?
In its way, it’s just as remarkable as the movie version – it certainly tells us a lot about Jimmy P, the Physician of Hoxton.
On the day of the trial, after talking his way out of a noose and politely defying the combined firepower of the Prime Minister and Attorney-General, James leaves the court and steps out into the street.
There, he’s confronted by the mother of one of his patients.
Ignoring the baying journalists, he takes the distraught Margaret Davis aside. He asks why she’s so upset, and listens carefully to what she says..
Margaret tells him she’s come to the court in desperation, to seek his urgent help. Her son George, who has what we now call mental health issues, is one of James’ patients at the Hoxton lunatic asylum.
James is a frequent visitor there. Unlike the rest of his profession, he feels compassion for its occupants.
In 1794, a lunatic asylum is still seen more as a place of public entertainment than a sanatorium.
James is among the first to treat asylum inmates with dignity, as patients with treatable maladies.
He addresses them normally. He listens carefully. He takes detailed histories. He treats them as people, not sub-humans.
Outside the courtroom, between sobs, Margaret tells James that a few days ago friends got George discharged from the asylum.
They went out drinking, where they abandoned George to the predations of an army recruiting party, who’d taken advantage of her son’s mental derangement to press-gang him.
That was the last anyone had seen of George .
James immediately drops everything to track down George Davis.
After several days sleuthing and searching, James discovers George at an army training camp in Hemel Hempstead.
He finds George in a terrible mental and physical state, but the Army thinks George is faking distress in order to get discharged.
James tries, and tries again, to convince the Army to release his patient.
Days later, he’s told George has died in army custody.
This is the first recorded incident of what was to become one of James’ many lifelong passions, the better treatment of the mentally ill.
So far as we know, James never wrote of his emotional state after the Privy Council trial, but it’s not hard for us to imagine.
Despite his intervention, his friends are still in the Tower of London .
Their fates remain in the balance, as the courts and news sheets vie with their lives.
James has just endured the tragedy of George Davis’s press-ganging and death in custody.
James could hardly have done anything more. Maybe that’s what Mary tells him.
Maybe she encourages him to return to the daily routine of attending to the patients, in his waiting room at No. 1 Hoxton Square. To keep giving the same attention to those in silk sitting in the armchairs, as to those in rags on the wooden benches.
Maybe James needs no encouragement to focus on his fossil collection.
Maybe he improves the design of a surgical truss he’s invented, to alleviate the hernia injuries sustained by his labourer patients.
His more money-minded friends are urging James to patent his truss – it could make him an independently wealthy gentleman with no need to see patients again.
Instead, James publishes his design for free, so anyone could make them, and benefit from his invention.
Maybe James looks at his young family, and reflects on how they’d cope without him to provide for them.
This is all speculation, but what we do know is that after the Privy Council trial, James abandons Politics.
He publishes no more pamphlets on the subject of Political Reform.
Instead, James devotes himself to less dangerous topics. An astonishing variety of them, in fact.
Over the next 30 years, James publishes dozens of papers, including seminal works in geology, palaeontology, care for the mentally ill, and medicine.
Among them, a 65-page treatise An Essay on the Shaking Palsy, the one that barely causes a ripple when it’s published in 1817.
Seven years later, James dies , on the Winter Solstice of 1824.
He was mourned in the Parish, respected by his peers in the sciences the poor and needy of Hoxton continue to remember him fondly as they’re treated by his son, John, who takes over the family practice.
Years pass, the Industrial Revolution blasts on full steam ahead, Britain’s Empire spreads. People die. Memories fade.
As the decades pass, many of the Reforms James sought as a younger man come to pass.
Meanwhile, with the passing of every person who’d known him, the name of James Parkinson fades, wanes, ebbs, dissolves, evaporates.
So why do I claim you’ve all heard of him?
63 years after James Parkinson had been buried in St Leonard’s churchyard, 63 years after he’s laid to rest beside his infant children, a Parisian physician stumbles across that 1817 Essay On the Shaking Palsy.
Jean Martin Charcot, the founder of the modern science of Neurology, reads James’s 1817 pamphlet again and again. He starts circulating copies to colleagues.
Charcot was the first of many to be astonished at this modest physician’s powers of observation and deduction.
To honour him posthumously, Charcot introduces the eponym, ‘Parkinson’s Disease’. It was widely used in Europe, before it became common in Britain.
After years of warning against the revolutionary dangers gusting over the Channel, James might have been amused that his resurrection originated in Paris.
But most of all, I imagine James Parkinson – Jimmy P – would have been astonished to learn that of all his life’s achievements, the one for which he’s remembered two centuries later, is his little pamphlet on what he called ‘The Shaking Palsy’ .
Our story today, of the quiet heroism of this modest physician in revolutionary times, is long forgotten – that’s why I want to tell it.
But we all know about what my Dad always used to call ‘this cruel disease’. We now now know that Parkinson’s Disease afflicts one in every 500 people.
If you’re wondering why such a common disease went unnamed for so long, consider the complexity of its presentation. Parkinson’s has a wide variety of symptoms, each of which affects every individual differently.
Huge strides have been made in understanding the mechanism of Parkinson’s Disease, but even today its cause and its cure elude medical science.
So how did this modest Hoxton physician, with only the technology and medical understanding of the early 1800s to guide him, spot this shape-shifting collection of symptoms?
How could he work out that they might be linked, and share a single root cause – something that eluded doctors for decades after his death?
James Parkinson spotted this because of his extraordinary powers of Compassion, Empathy, Observation and Listening.
His Essay on The Shaking Palsy has become a classic of medical literature.
Read it, and you’ll be even more amazed. He described this complex disease with such uncanny accuracy, based on only six cases.
Three he read about, two he examined himself, and one was a nameless stranger he spotted once.
One day, looking from his study to the other side of Hoxton Square, James’s sharp e ye caught a distinctive shuffling gait.
The man slowly disappeared from James’ sight, swallowed up by London.
James never saw the man again, never knew his name, but he knew what he’d seen. He made a note, described what he saw, and later connected it to his other observations.
The rest, as you now know, is medical history.
So there you have it, the story of Jimmy P, my hero’s hero, James Parkinson.
Just as Jimmy P collected and assembled all his pieces of evidence for the Shaking Palsy, my father spent his life assembling all the little clues, and crumbs, and components of the story you’ve just heard, from all sorts of different sources.
This is the trove I found in the papers in Dad’s study, after he died.
This bizarre tale of the heroic role played in a plot to assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of, is my homage to my hero, via his hero.
Parts of it are familiar to some specialists in medical and 18th-century history, bu t it’s a barely-told story, which is why I wanted to tell it to you.
There’s one more story I think you’d like, now you know Jimmy P.
It too reaches out beyond the grave, but this one is even less well-known.
And in its own way, just as remarkable.
Put it this way, I reckon Jimmy P would have loved it.
In Episode 9: A Tale of Two Wheezes, we reveal another extraordinary ripple emanating from No. 1, Hoxton Square to the present day.