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DR WILLIAM WITHERING, 17th March 1741- 6th October 1799, Doctor of Medicine, Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the Linnaean Society.

 

William Withering was born in Wellington, Shropshire, on 17th March 1741. He attended Edinburgh Medical School from 1762 to 1766 and in 1767 he was appointed as a consultant physician at Stafford Royal Infirmary. In 1772, he married Helena Cookes an amateur botanical illustrator, whom he had come to know while she was a patient of his. They had three children, the first of whom, Helena, was born in 1775 but died a few days later. The second child, a son, William, was born in 1776, and was followed by a daughter, Charlotte, in 1778.

 

In 1775 he was appointed physician to Birmingham General Hospital at the suggestion of Erasmus Darwin, himself a physician and a founder member of the Lunar Society. Withering observed a patient with dropsy –swelling from congestive heart failure- improve remarkably after taking a traditional herbal remedy; and he became famous for recognising that the active ingredient in the mixture came from the foxglove plant. The active ingredient is now known as digitalis, after the plant's scientific name.

 

In 1776, he published ‘The Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables naturally growing in Great Britain’ an early and influential work on British Flora. It was the first in English based on the then-new Linnaean taxonomy — a classification of all living things devised by the eminent Swedish botanist and physician Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) Withering wrote two more editions of this work in 1787 and 1792, in collaboration with fellow Lunar Society member Jonathan Stokes, and after his death his son (also William) published four more. It continued being published under various authors until 1877.

 

In 1783 he diagnosed himself as having pulmonary tuberculosis and went twice to Portugal hoping the better winter climate would improve his health; it didn't. On the way home from his second trip there, the ship he was in was chased by pirates. Possibly as a result, Withering began a series of analyses of spa waters, both in the United Kingdom, and notably at the medicinal spa at Caldas da Rainha in Portugal. This latter undertaking occurred during the winter of 1793-4, and he was subsequently elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Portugal.

 

In 1785, after nine years study, Withering published ‘An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses’ which contained reports on clinical trials and notes on the effects and toxicity of digitalis. He documented 156 cases where he had employed the drug, and described the effects, and the best and safest ways of using it. At least one of these cases was a patient about whom Erasmus Darwin had asked Withering for his opinion. In January 1785 Darwin submitted a paper entitled ‘An Account of the Successful Use of Foxglove in Some Dropsies and in Pulmonary Consumption’ to the College of Physicians in London, and it was presented by Darwin in March of that year. A postscript at the end of the published volume of transactions containing Darwin's paper states that ‘Whilst the last pages of this volume were in the press, Dr Withering of Birmingham... published a numerous collection of cases in which foxglove has been given, and frequently with good success.’ After this, Darwin and Withering became increasingly estranged, and eventually an horrendous argument broke out apparently resulting from Darwin having accused Withering of unprofessional behaviour by effectively poaching patients.

 

Also in 1785, he was elected a Fellow of the very prestigious Royal Society, and the following year he leased Edgbaston Hall in Birmingham - now home to a golf club and nature reserve - and became one of the members of the Lunar Society.

 

During the Birmingham riots of 1791 (in which Priestley's home was demolished) he prepared to flee from Edgbaston Hall, but his staff kept the rioters at bay until the military arrived. In 1799 he decided that he couldn't tolerate another winter in the cold and draughty Edgbaston Hall, so bought "The Larches" in the nearby Sparkbrook area; his wife did not feel up to the move and remained at Edgbaston Hall. Tragically, after moving to The Larches on 28 September, he died on 6 October 1799.

 

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other members of

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Thomas Day Richard Edgeworth James Keir William Small Jonathan Stokes John Whitehurst