Walking With Ancestors

William Withering

William Withering was born in Wellington’s Market Square in March 1741. During his lifetime, he made important contributions to the study of Botany and Mineralogy but he is best remembered for his groundbreaking medical research which continues to have a major impact today, well over 200 years since his discoveries were first made.

In The Beginning

Withering began his education as a pupil of Rev Henry Wood, the curate of the parish church at nearby High Ercall, to whom he later dedicated his university thesis. However, the source of his initial medical training is less certain. It could have been that he was apprenticed to his father Edmund, who was an apothecary/surgeon in Wellington but this seems unlikely as it was usually the practice for apprentices to eventually become apothecaries themselves, which young William did not. Under the circumstances, it seems more probable that he became a pupil of his uncle, Dr Brooke Hector of Lichfield. In any case, it is clear Withering excelled as a student and in 1762 he left Wellington to study medicine at Edinburgh University, qualifying as an MD four years later.


The Grand Dame and the Purple Foxglove

After leaving Edinburgh, Withering’s first appointment was as Physician at Stafford General Infirmary where he met his future wife Helena Cookes, to whom he was married in 1772. Withering left Stafford three years later to take up a post at Birmingham General Hospital and it was while travelling back to the town to see patients at the Infirmary that he chanced upon his greatest medical discovery. During the course of the journey, as the horses pulling his coach were changed, Withering was asked to consult an elderly woman suffering from Dropsy (a general swelling of the body caused by an accumulation of fluid, known nowadays as congestive heart failure) whom he diagnosed as having little chance of recovery. Passing by several weeks later, Withering enquired of the woman’s health and was surprised to be told she had in fact recovered, thanks to a recipe supplied by a ‘Grand Old Dame’ from Shropshire! After experimenting with the 20 or so herbs contained in the mixture, Withering concluded that the active ingredient that had cured the patient was contained in the leaves of the purple foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea).

The Great Breakthrough

Withering’s discovery was not in itself a new one, as the foxglove had been used in the treatment of ailments for many centuries in the form of plasters and ointments. Owing to its toxicity, the drug, which is known to improve the force, pace and speed of heart contractions, often induced poisoning in patients when it was administered in too large a quantity and had become unpopular among the medical establishment in the treatment of cardiac illnesses. Between 1775 and 1784 Withering scrupulously recorded the cases of 156 patients treated with digitalis and was able to establish an effective dose for the drug that avoided unpleasant side-effects, while arguing that creating an infusion from the plant’s leaves (dried powder) was a more effective treatment than boiling them (decoction) which he suspected would inactivate their therapeutic properties. These conclusions formed the basis of Withering’s ground-breaking work, An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medical Uses (1785), which forced a re-evaluation of medical opinion and legitimised the use of digitalis in cardiac treatment.

Lunar Activities

By the time Withering’s masterwork was published, he was already socialising with some of the most eminent minds of his day as a member of the Lunar Society, a monthly Birmingham dining club that met on the Monday nearest the full-moon, so that its members could ride home by moonlight. As a meeting place for scientists, inventors and philosophers, the club was second only to the Royal Society and counted figures such as Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Matthew Boulton and James Priestly among its members. Like his contemporaries, Withering had many wide ranging interests and made a number of other valuable contributions to 18th Century science.

In 1776, he published A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain. The ‘Botany’, which was published in two volumes and illustrated by Withering’s wife, was inspired by the work of Swedish botanist Linnaeus and represented the first serious attempt at a comprehensive, modern scientific study of British plant life, by classifying species according to their reproductive organs. In common with his painstaking study of the Purple Foxglove, Withering used this publication to dispel many of the claims made for the medical effects of plants and vegetables based on folklore and superstition, while it was also intended to make the subject more easily understood by readers without a classical education. The ‘Botany’ was an immediate success, gaining widespread acceptance throughout Europe, and for which Withering was granted fellowship of the Linnaean Society in 1789.

At University, Withering had developed an interest in Mineralogy and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1785, for his paper Experiments and Observations on the Terra Ponderosa. As a result of his findings, Withering was credited with the discovery of Barium Carbonate, which was later renamed Witherite in his honour, by the German Mineralogist AG Werner. A rare mineral that is only found in a few locations around the world, Witherite was employed as an experimental pottery glaze by Josiah Wedgwood and has been used in sugar refining and as a preparation in rat poison!

The Flower Withers

Despite his seemingly boundless energy for scientific investigation, Withering suffered from persistent ill health for much of his later life, having initially self-diagnosed his own tuberculosis in 1783. It seemed that even illness provided him with a degree of inspiration, for he developed a form of air conditioning in his home at Edgbaston Hall to maintain a consistent room temperature of 65 degrees throughout the winter! Although he could not practice medicine in the final years of his life, Withering was still able to prepare a third edition of his great Botanical work in 1796 before finally succumbing to tuberculosis in 1799 aged 58.