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Factoid—something that becomes accepted as fact, although it may not be true
‘It's not what people don't know that causes all the trouble—it's what they know that ain't so.’ Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher
A few years ago, a fundraising campaign by the Parkinson's Disease Society depicted Dr James Parkinson as a man without a face, for the sound reason that no portrait of him is known to exist. All we have is a description by his friend and fellow paleontologist Dr Gideon Mantell, who wrote, ‘Mr Parkinson was rather below the middle stature, with an energetic, intelligent and pleasing expression of countenance, and of mild and courteous manners’.
Now try the following experiment—enter Google Images and search on ‘James Parkinson’. The same portrait (figure 1) comes up 62 times in the first few pages, including six out of the eight images on the first line. Clearly, James Parkinson is no longer a man without a face—the only question is, whose face is it? The picture shows a handsome fellow in early middle age with an intelligent expression and a luxuriant growth of whiskers. Is this really Dr James Parkinson, and does our long dead colleague now have a face after all?
Unfortunately, a little research shows that this picture cannot possibly be our James Parkinson for the simple reason that Parkinson's death predated the invention of portrait photography by several years. Parkinson died of stroke on 21 December 1824 at the age of 69 years. The oldest surviving photograph of any type was the famous ‘View from the window at Le Gras’, obtained by Joseph Niépce in 1826—the exposure would have taken several hours. Louis Daguerre developed the technique of daguerreotype in 1838, the first occasion that an image could be captured in exposures lasting minutes rather than hours. The first users of this technique to capture portraits of a human face were the Americans Robert Cornelius (self-portrait) and John Draper (portrait of his sister Dorothy), both in 1839. Parkinson missed portrait photography by 15 years.
I have been unable to establish who the man in the portrait really was or why his picture has become associated with James Parkinson. A previous spurious photograph of Parkinson turned out to be that of a dentist with the same name attending a meeting in 1872, and the same form of mistaken identity may have happened again. Sadly, Dr James Parkinson must revert to being faceless, however much we may wish it otherwise.
Competing interests None.
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