Vanessa Grubbs is an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “Hundreds of Interlaced Fingers: A Kidney Doctor’s Search for the Perfect Match.”
As a doctor, I was drawn to Cherry Lewis’s “The Enlightened Mr. Parkinson: The Pioneering Life of a Forgotten Surgeon” by the title alone. I wondered how could this man be forgotten when everybody knows his name, because he was the first to describe the shaking palsy condition that later became known as Parkinson’s disease?
Lewis provides a fascinating, illustrated account of the life and times of James Parkinson, who lived from 1755 to 1824, a time of significant political upheaval and considerable probing into the earth sciences and medicine. It was an era when only white male landowners had the right to vote and bloodletting was the go-to treatment for most ailments. As Lewis tells it, Parkinson fought for the rights of the vulnerable, moved some scientific fields forward and observed what most people could not see.
Lewis, an honorary research fellow at the University of Bristol, explores three main themes of Parkinson’s life: politics, fossils and medicine. The author’s passion for geology gives us four chapters devoted to Parkinson’s fossil endeavors. Only the penultimate chapter focuses on why he has an ailment named after him.
Though I personally have no interest in fossils, I was absorbed by Lewis’s account of Parkinson’s pioneering work in the field. Particularly compelling was Lewis’s depiction of Parkinson’s struggle with his faith and how he reconciled history revealed in fossil evidence with his belief in the stories of the Bible.
Lewis recounts the remarks of the lecturer John Hunter, a renowned Scottish scientist and surgeon, about his remarkable collection of skulls. A newspaper of the day, reporting on the lecture, noted that “the most perfect human skull is the European; the most imperfect, the Negro.” The paper added: “Mr. Hunter observed that in placing the Negro above the monkey, great honour is done to him; for although a man, he can hardly be called a brother.”
In recounting this episode, Lewis writes rather off-handedly: “Today such comments shock our politically correct sensibilities.” In an otherwise fine book, I found her casual response almost like a justification of Hunter’s crassness.
Throughout the book, Lewis pieces together voluminous information from the late 18th and early 19th centuries to form her compelling tale. Anyone interested in the history of medicine, politics and geology will enjoy this book. I finished it in awe of Parkinson’s many accomplishments and contributions to politics, health and science, despite having a large family and a very busy medical practice.
By Cherry Lewis
306 pp. $27.95