Issue 8, 13th May 1996: Dr William Withering; Drug-pushing Lunatic Hero
By Adam Hart-Davis.
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The Lunar Society was perhaps the most brilliant collection of scientists the world has ever known. They met for dinner once a month, and so that they had light to find their way home afterwards, they held their dinner parties at the time of the full moon. That was why they called themselves the Lunar Society - or the Lunatics.
The Lunar Society was started in 1766 by Matthew Boulton and Erasmus Darwin (Charles's grandfather), along with their doctor, William Small. When Small died, Darwin invited William Withering to join the group.
Some people get to be heroes by a single stunning idea; others by painstaking attention to detail. This meticulous country doctor discovered the best-known drug for the management of heart disease, but he was a plodder.
Withering was born on 17 March 1741, studied medicine at Edinburgh, and became a physician in Staffordshire, where his girlfriend interested him so much in plants that in 1776 he published a huge botanical treatise with a ridiculous title that started A botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables naturally growing in Great Britain. With descriptions of the Genera and Species According to the celebrated Linnaeus. Darwin suggested a title such as English Botany, but he insisted on being precise, and his title went on for 24 lines.
(Also born 1741: Henry Fuseli, Swiss born painter of exotic and sensual pieces; Joseph II, Holy Roman emperor, ruled over the Austrian Habsburg doninions; Count Jean-Francois de Galaup La Perouse, French navigator who conducted wide explorations of the Pacific; Peter Simon Pallas, German naturalist who advanced theories on the formation of mountains.)
He rented Edgbaston Hall when he was 46, by which time he had become the richest doctor outside London. Edgbaston Hall is a magnificent building - it's now the club house for Edgbaston Golf Club. He had the distinction of having the first water closet in Birmingham. But what made him famous was his interest in plants.
In 1775 one of Withering's patients was dying - he thought the case was hopeless. But the patient, unwilling to give up, took a gypsy remedy, and got better. So Withering hunted down the gypsy and asked what was in this magic potion. He found that the vital ingredient was foxglove.
Withering was intrigued. He tried every bit of the plant, in all sorts of different ways, and after experimenting on 163 patients found the best formulation was dried powdered leaf, which he gave to the patients by mouth.
The foxglove is called digitalis, and we now call the active constituents digoxin and digitoxin. Even today, there are no better drugs in the treatment of fast atrial fibrillation.
In 1799 William the physician was very ill, and his friends said The flower of physic is Withering. And when he died a foxglove was carved on his memorial stone in the little church near Edgbaston Hall.