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S4E9 of our podcast, The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories. The Quiet Revolutionary – A Tale of Two Wheezes

podcast The Quiet Revolutionary Parkinson's health history carbon drawdown

Episode 9 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 9, Series 4 A Tale of Two Wheezes, we learn how you came to be told this story by two heroes, separated by more than a century but with much in common.

Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter

Audio Production by Samuel Wain

Next: Episode 10, Be Nice To Old Ladies

Like all stories, it’s best to start at the beginning:

Episode 1, Dad, Me and Jimmy P.

Episode 2, The Cauldron

Episode 3, The Pint-Pot Paperweights

Episode 4, The View from Westminster

Episode 5, The Plot

Episode 6, The Physician’s Dilemma

Episode 7, The Privy Council

Episode 8, A Different Kind of Activism

Episode 9, A Tale of Two Wheezes

Episode 10, Be Nice To Old Ladies

Or if you’d like to hear all 10 episodes in one go, here’s the omnibus edition.

If you suffer from, or know anyone who suffers from, what Dr. Gerald Stern called ‘this cruel disease’, do consider joining this See Through News administered Facebook Group.

The Quiet Revolutionary is a podcast by The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News.

See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.

If you enjoyed this series, please share it with others, and try our other stories.


Podcast Transcript

Episode 9: A Tale of Two Wheezes

So there you have it. 

If you know about, or have had the misfortune to come across, what my father used to call ‘this cruel disease’, you now know the forgotten history of the man behind the eponymous malady. James Parkinson, Physician, of No. 1 Hoxton Square, London.

In Episode One, I listed a few biographical and character traits shared by my hero – my father Dr. Gerald Stern – and my hero’s hero, Jimmy P.

I told you I grew up thinking of Jimmy P as a family member. 

For Dad it was even more intimate. Dad knew Jimmy P long before he knew me or my siblings, and in one way or another he spent most of his adult life with him.

Dad’s entire career, his life’s work, was devoted to the treatment and research of Parkinson’s Disease – in the form of Pills, Patients and People.

On the Pill front, Dad was a key player in the development of game-changing drugs like Leva-dopamine. 

If you’ve read Oliver Sacks’s book, Awakenings, or seen the Hollywood version starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams, you’ll know what an extraordinary experiment that was.

On the Patient front, when I was 4 years old, Dad was one of the three founders of the Parkinson’s Disease Society, which has since morphed into one of Britain’s biggest medical charities, Parkinson’s UK. 

On the People front, Dad helped found the European Federation of Neurological Societies, at a time when the Cold War was building iron curtains, not bridges, between scientists. 

In 1992 Dad ran the show when the World Congress of Neurology was held in London. I had little idea of this achievement at the time, as I was then starting my career as a journalist in the Far East.

Dad retired from the National Health Service in 1995. 

He did the odd bit of private practice, most notably at the Vatican. There, Dad politely declined the invitation of his old Polish Parkinson’s patient to kiss his ring. 

But now I want to tell you how Dad and his hero James Parkinson grew even closer after Dad’s retirement.

Why did he collect all that material I found in his study for the story I’ve just told you?

Even fewer people know this story, than know The Pop-Gun Plot yarn I just spun you. 

I reckon James Parkinson would have loved this story. By now I hope you’ve got to know our Hoxton Square Physician well enough to agree, but see what you think.

When he died in 2018, Dad had been retired for more than 20 years. 

Second to seeing his children and grandchildren thrive, Dad’s greatest retirement pleasure, was seeing his former protegees around the world thrive.

In Georgian England, James Parkinson corresponded with like-minded Reformers around Britain by means of the Postal Service.

More than two centuries later, Dad connected with his global network of former protegees by means of International Neurological Conferences.

This was possible because nearly all of Dad’s former research students, who he’d hand-picked from around the world, then returned home to become top neurologists in their native countries. 

Just as Dad had organised the 1992 World Congress of Neurology in London, the birthplace he shared with Jimmy P, his protegees were now organising their own international conferences. 

They wanted Dad to be there.

They wanted to feast with, and gossip with, their former mentor, but they also wanted to give their own students the benefits they’d enjoyed, of hearing Dad lecture, encourage them, offer his opinion on tricky cases at their hospitals. 

Just as Dad had learned certain values from his mentors, Dad’s protegees now felt the same duty to pass on Dad’s lessons to the next generation. Lessons of Compassion, Empathy, Observation and Listening. 

There was, however, one major difference between the way Dad had operated, and the way his protegees did. Money.

In James Parkinson’s era, it had been possible for gifted individuals to achieve great things without the benefit of money or title. 

By my Dad’s time, at least in the field of medical research, ingenuity and passion were no longer enough. You needed lots of money.

Dad, for reasons I’ll come on to, personally controlled a substantial Parkinson’s research fund. Not a penny came from Big Pharmaceutical companies. Dad had complete control over his own budget and how he spent it.

Growing up, I knew none of this. In the way all children ignore Dad-isms, my siblings and I never wondered why Dad kept saying, with a smile,we should be nice to old ladies. I had little idea what it was he did between dropping us off at school in the morning, and reading us bedtime stories at night.

But one day, as I was taking the first steps down my own career path, I personally experienced the lengths Dad went to, in order to find the best and the brightest. 

It was the mid-90s, and I was a rookie TV news journalist in Tokyo. 

One day, out of the blue, Dad called to ask a favour. 

He was thinking of recruiting a research scientist for his Parkinson’s research team. 

He said this researcher looked great on paper, but was currently working in Japan. 

Before inviting him to join the team in London, Dad wanted me to meet him, look him in the eye, and generally check he was a decent chap.

I was in my twenties, my only qualifications were a degree in Chinese and four years trading textiles. I had no science background.

Ah, Dad said, but you see this researcher is from Shanghai, and you speak Chinese and I don’t.  

I protested that I was completely unqualified to be a juror for such an important verdict, way outside my area of expertise.

But Dad assured me he trusted my judgement of character – it was a minor precaution, just to double-check this researcher was indeed the kind of bloke you’d want to share a lab with for two years. 

I was really very reluctant, but Dad gave me the impression it was really just a chance for him to show off that he had a Chinese-speaking son working in Japan. I began to think there was no harm in indulging Dad’s paternal pride. 

Dad was proud of his children, and always encouraged us to choose our own paths, but on reflection he played me like a fish.

I agreed to meet this Chinese researcher. Arranging the appointment proved to be far from easy, however. 

I was a junior dogsbody, at a new job, in the unpredictable business of TV News.

After some false starts and last-minute postponements, and at a day’s notice, we finally fixed a date. I warned him it would have to be brief, and I might have to cancel at the last minute, if news broke out.

But it didn’t, so at noon the next day, we met at a park near the ABC News Tokyo Bureau. 

We bought a couple of o-nigiri rice balls, we selected cans of hot coffee from a vending machine, found an empty bench, and chatted for twenty minutes or so.

He turned out to be a delightful bloke. I’d given him the thumbs up the moment I saw his shy, smiling face, but as we said goodbye I channelled my Inner member of the Royal Family, and asked him, had he travelled far? 

That was when he told me he’d just spent 8 hours on a public bus to come and meet me. He was now about to catch the bus back.

As he waved goodbye and disappeared down the subway station steps, it sunk in. 

This top researcher, this rising star in the hot new field of stem-cell research, who’d already been head-hunted by top-notch research teams in the US and Japan, had embarked on a 16-hour round trip, by bus, just for a 20-minute chat with Dr. Gerald Stern’s non-scientist son.  

This was my first adult insight into the esteem in which Dad was held – and his idiosyncratic approach to recruitment.

This Chinese researcher spent two years as part of Dad’s Parkinson’s Disease research team in London. After a stint at a top US research university, he was tempted back home, where he set up China’s top Parkinson’s research facility.

So it was, that he joined the growing ranks of Dad’s former protegees around the world. 

After Dad retired, he too started inviting his former mentor to speak at neurological conferences he was organising.

But he – like the rest of the medical world, and unlike Dad, had masters to please, budgets to be approved, bean-counters to satisfy. 

You may know that almost all medical research, conferences and journals depend on Big Pharma for funding. You may also be familiar with some of the ethical conflicts this can cause.

I’ll come on to how Dad came to be the only independent researcher in his field, but   suffice to say, his kind of independence was unique – unheard of – in his field.

When Dad’s eminent protegees around the world wanted to invite him to their conferences, they didn’t enjoy the same discretion Dad had when he’d hired them. 

They had to do it by the book. 

In the submission forms demanded by the purse-holders, in the box for Keynote Speaker you couldn’t just put ‘my former teacher’. Or in the box for Topic, ‘To Be Confirmed’.

So they had to do what James Parkinson, a lowly Physician in a world still dominated by the aristocratic elite, had had to do.  

They had to do what Dad, the barely-educated son of a Bethnal Green tobacconist aspiring to join the double-barrelled, country-estate world of post-War British neurology, had had to do. 

They had to hustle. Get creative. Come up with what Dad liked to call a Good Wheeze. 

They’d learned from the best, and had learned well. To get the bean-counters to sign off on their conference invitations for Dad, they came up with not one, but two Cracking Wheezes.

Wheeze Number  One worked well for the first few years after Dad’s retirement.  

His ex-protegees would invite Dad to lecture on traditional Clinical Practice – what civilians call Observing and Listening.

This was nothing as dramatic as Jimmy P taking on the Establishment to save his friends from the gallows, but in its own way choosing this topic was Dad’s subtle act of Resistance against the rising tide of Big Science.  

One of Dad’s major concerns about Big Pharma’s influence on medical research was that the science was increasingly being directed not by patient care, but by Profit.

Dad admired all the astonishing recent technological breakthroughs – the Brave New World Technologies of Molecular Biology, Genetic Analysis and Big Data. 

But he was also wary that blindly following them risked neglecting the kind of Old School doctoring he’d learned from his hero, Jimmy P. 

The more focus doctors gave to technology, the less attention they paid to traditional tricks-of-the-trade. 

Tricks like taking a careful patient history, Compassion, Empathy, Observing and Listening.  

The kind of thing that makes you spot a distinctive shuffling gait from across Hoxton Square, and make a note. Or listen to people with mental illness, rather than leave them to rot in an asylum. 

This, then, became Wheeze One. Across the world, Dad’s protegees colluded against the bean-counters.  

They justified Dad’s keynote speaker’s invitation, first-class ticket, and 5-star accommodation for him and Mum by billing him as an Expert in Clinical Practice. 

What you and I know as Bedside Manner. Or, more simply, Listening.  

Better include a lecture on Clinical Practice.  Maybe we could get Dr. Gerald Stern – he puts on a great show and is much in demand, but luckily I have a personal connection. You know, I might just be able to persuade him to favour our conference with his presence…

Wheeze One worked like a dream for many years, but began to run out of steam the second time round. 

This was the problem – no matter how they dressed it up, it was bureaucratically awkward to justify inviting Dad to deliver the same lecture twice.

But Dad spent decades recruiting research colleagues largely on the basis of their resourcefulness and creativity. 

He was a Wheeze Master, and has taught them all he knew. 

So his ex-protegees came up with Wheeze Number Two, which turned out to be even better than Wheeze Number One. 

Wheeze Two became a cast-iron, guaranteed pass for Dad to elude conference auditing bouncers in perpetuity.  

Their cunning plan – they invited Dad to deliver a lecture on the man who gave his name to the disease they all studied – James Parkinson.  

As a Cunning Plan specialist himself – and to be honest, Dad wasn’t entirely uninvolved in this one – Wheeze Two was right up his maverick, nonconformist street.  

What bean-counter, what box-ticker could possibly object to a lecture on the Life and Times of the physician who gave his name to the disease they studied? Or more accurately, as you now know, to whom his name was given decades after his death.

This, then, was how Dad came to assemble all the research on the Life of this humble Physician of No. 1 Hoxton Square in his study     .

This then, is the material I’ve used to tell you the story of the heroic role played in a plot to assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of.

But I’ve not yet told you the story of how Dad managed his entire career developing ground-breaking medical treatments, without taking a penny from Big Pharma.

Dad’s unique independent career, based on complete control of a substantial research fund, didn’t involve any Wheezes, Cunning Plans or bureaucrat-bamboozling.

It came straight from the Playbook of my hero’s hero, Jimmy P.

In Episode 10: Be Nice To Old Ladies, we find out how Dad channelled his Inner Jimmy P to shape his own medical legacy.