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Withering, William

foxglove extract oedema digitalis

(1741–99) British physician: made classic study of the medicinal use of digitalis.

A graduate of Edinburgh, Withering practised in Stafford and then moved to Birmingham at the suggestion of Erasmus Darwin of Lichfield (grandfather of ). He was a member of the Lunar Society, a group of Midland scientists including , J Wedgwood (1730–95) and M Boulton (1728–1809), who met monthly at the full moon (to assist their homegoing) and he was a keen botanist. Finding that an extract of herbs had long been used to treat ‘dropsy’ (oedema), Withering made a careful study of the matter and found that the active herb was the foxglove and that some cases of oedema could indeed be treated effectively with foxglove leaf extract. He gave an excellent report of this work in his classic An Account of the Foxglove … (1785); it is modern in style, with good case histories and includes failures as well as successes. It was later found that the extract contains digitalis, which steadies and strengthens heart action and which is still used for this.

He was also a mineralogist, and witherite (barium carbonate, BaCO3 ) is named after him. He suffered greatly from chest disease (probably tuberculosis) and lived for years in a controlled atmosphere. His decline inspired the epigram ‘the flower of Physick is Withering’.

Witherspoon, John (1942–) [next] [back] With This Ring

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