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Parkinson’s disease diagnosis is preceded by increased risk of falls, study finds

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 05 February 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i695

From scelotyrbe to the shaking palsy

From scelotyrbe to the shaking palsy

James Parkinson, Apothecary, Surgeon, Geologist and Political Activist, described in 1817, the shaking palsy, the disorder that today is deservedly known as Parkinson’s disease.
The Library of the Royal Society of Medicine currently hosts an excellent exhibition (6th November 2017 - 27th January 2018) on Parkinson and his publication of the shaking palsy, curated by Robert Greenwood, Heritage Officer.

In one of the exhibits, the visitor comes across the word “scelotyrbe”.

Parkinson argues that Galen, the physician from Pergamum (2nd c A.D.), first described clinical symptoms of the shaking palsy or paralysis agitans under the heading scelotyrbe (σκελοτύρβη in Greek; meaning lameness in the leg such as to make one totter about).

Scelotyrbe is a composite word from σκέλος - meaning the leg from the hip downwards and τύρβη - meaning disorder, confusion, tumult and metaphorically revelry.

It appears in the book of Medical Definitions in the Galenic corpus (attributed to Pseudo-Galenus; in KUHN C.G., Vol 19, page 427, line 9, Leipzig, 1821-1833 ) and is also used by Strabo the Geographer (STRABO Geographica; Book 16, chapter 4, section 24, line 12).

The English translation from the Galenic text reads: -
"Scelotyrbe is a kind of paralysis so that walking on a straight line is not possible, at times forward, at times the left (limb) moving around to the right, or the right to the left and at times dragging the limb like those ascending a steep incline" (my translation).

There is an ongoing debate currently in the correspondence columns of THE TIMES newspaper (November 29 and December 4, 2017) about the value of teaching Ancient Greek to the young.

It is tempting to speculate whether Parkinson’s essay would have materialised without his understanding of Latin or Greek.

As for the practical value of this observation, the cause of diseases that existed also in antiquity may not, arguably, be found in today’s environmental factors.

Competing interests: No competing interests

06 December 2017
Spyros Retsas
Retired Medical Oncologist
Formerly, Charing Cross and Cromwell Hospitals, London
Parnassus, ESSEX