William Withering

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William Withering FRS
William Withering.jpg
Born (1741-03-17)17 March 1741
Wellington, Shropshire
Died 6 October 1799(1799-10-06) (aged 58)
Sparkbrook, Birmingham
Citizenship English
Nationality English
Fields Botanist, geologist, chemist, physician
Academic advisors William Cullen
Known for Discovery of digitalis

William Withering FRS (17 March 1741 – 6 October 1799) was an English botanist, geologist, chemist, physician and the discoverer of digitalis.


Withering was born in Wellington, Shropshire, trained as a physician and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. He worked at Birmingham General Hospital from 1779. The story is that he noticed a person with dropsy (swelling from congestive heart failure) improve remarkably after taking a traditional herbal remedy; Withering became famous for recognising that the active ingredient in the mixture came from the foxglove plant.[1] The active ingredient is now known as digitalis, after the plant's scientific name. In 1785, Withering published An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses, which contained reports on clinical trials and notes on digitalis's effects and toxicity.[2]


Born in Wellington, Shropshire, England, he attended Edinburgh Medical School from 1762 to 1766. In 1767 he started as a consultant at Stafford Royal Infirmary. He married Helena Cookes (an amateur botanical illustrator, and erstwhile patient of his) in 1772; they had three children (the first, Helena was born in 1775 but died a few days later, William was born in 1776, and Charlotte in 1778). In 1775 he was appointed physician to Birmingham General Hospital (at the suggestion of Erasmus Darwin, a physician and founder member of the Lunar Society), but in 1783 he diagnosed himself as having pulmonary tuberculosis and went twice to Portugal hoping the better winter climate would improve his health; it did not. On the way home from his second trip there, the ship he was in was chased by pirates. In 1785 he was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society and also published his Account of the Foxglove (see below). The following year he leased Edgbaston Hall (now home to a golf club and nature reserve), in Birmingham, England. He was one of the members of the Lunar Society.[3] 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 could not tolerate another winter in the cold and draughty Hall, so he bought "The Larches" in the nearby Sparkbrook area; his wife did not feel up to the move and remained at Edgbaston Hall. After moving to The Larches on 28 September, he died on 6 October 1799.


William Withering's memorial plaque inside St Bartholomew's Church, Edgbaston

He was buried on 10 October 1799 in Edgbaston Old Church next to Edgbaston Hall, Edgbaston, Birmingham, although the exact site of his grave is unknown. The memorial stone, now moved inside the church, has foxgloves and Witheringia solanaceae (see below) carved upon it to commemorate his discovery and his wider contribution to botany. He is also remembered by one of the Moonstones in Birmingham and by a blue plaque at Edgbaston Golf Club.[4]

In July 2011 a J D Wetherspoon public house opened in Withering's birthplace, Wellington, and has been named after him.[5]


In 1776, he published The botanical arrangement of all the vegetables naturally growing in Great Britain, an early and influential 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. Withering senior also carried out pioneering work into the identification of fungi and invented a folding pocket microscope for use on botanical field trips. He also introduced to the general audience the screw down plant press and the vasculum.[6] In 1787 he was elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society in recognition of his contribution to botany. Subsequently the plant Witheringia solanacea was named in his honour, and he became known on the continent of Europe as "The English Linnaeus". The William Withering Chair in Medicine at the University of Birmingham Medical School is named after him, as is the medical school's annual William Withering Lecture.

Chemistry and geology[edit]

William Withering analysing thermal waters in Portugal

He was an enthusiastic chemist and geologist. He conducted a series of experiments on Terra Ponderosa, a heavy ore from Cumberland, England. He deduced that it contained a hitherto undescribed element which he was unable to characterise. It was later shown to be barium carbonate and in 1789 the eminent German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner named the mineral Witherite in his honour.[8] He also undertook analyses of the mineral content of a number of spa waters in England and abroad, 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.

Discovery of digitalis[edit]

Withering first learned of the use of Digitalis in treating "dropsy" (congestive heart failure) from Mother Hutton, an old woman who practiced as a folk herbalist in Shropshire, who used the plant as part of a polyherbal formulation containing over 20 different ingredients to successfully treat this condition.[9][10][11] Withering deduced that Digitalis was the "active" ingredient in the formulation, and over the ensuing nine years he carefully tried out different preparations of various parts of the plant (collected in different seasons) documenting 156 cases where he had employed digitalis, and describing the effects and the best - and safest - way of using it. At least one of these cases was a patient for whom Erasmus Darwin had asked Withering for his second 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;[12] it was presented by Darwin in March of that year. A postscript[13] 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 a horrendous argument broke out apparently resulting from Darwin having accused Withering of unprofessional behaviour by effectively poaching patients. This is a very early example of medical academic plagiarism.


This list is drawn from Sheldon, 2004:[14]

  • 1766 Dissertation on angina gangrenosa
  • 1773 "Experiments on different kinds of Marle found in Staffordshire" Phil Trans. 63: 161-2
  • 1776 "A botanical arrangement of all the vegetables growing in Great Britain..." (two volumes) Publ Swinney, London
  • 1779 "An account of the scarlet fever and sore throat, or scarlatina; particularly as it appeared at Birmingham in the year 1778" Publ Cadell London
  • 1782 "An analysis of two mineral substance, vz. the Rowley rag-stone and the toad stone" Phil Trans 72: 327-36
  • 1783 "Outlines of mineralogy" Publ Cadell, London (a translation of Bergmann's Latin original)
  • 1784 "Experiments and observations on the terra ponderosa" Phil trans 74: 293-311
  • 1785 "An account of the foxglove and some of its medical uses; with practical remarks on the dropsy, and some other diseases" Publ Swinney, Birmingham
  • 1787 "A botanical arrangement of British plants..." 2nd ed. Publ Swinney, London
  • 1788 Letter to Joseph Priestley on the principle of acidity, the decomposition of water. Phil Trans 78: 319-330
  • 1790 "An account of some extraordinary effects of lightning" Phil Trans 80: 293-5
  • 1793 "An account of the scarlet fever and sore throat..." 2nd ed Publ Robinson, London
  • 1793 "A chemical analysis of waters at Caldas" extract from Actas da Academica real das Sciencias
  • 1794 "A new method for preserving fungi, ascertained by chymical experiments" Trans Linnean Soc 2: 263-6
  • 1795 "Analyse chimica da aqua das Caldas da Rainha" Lisbon (a chemical analysis of the water of Caldas da Rainha)
  • 1796 "Observations on the pneumatic medicine" Ann Med 1: 392-3
  • 1796 "An arrangement of British plants..." 3rd ed. Publ Swinney, London
  • 1799 "An account of a convenient method of inhaling the vapour of volatile substances" Ann Med 3: 47-51


  1. ^ Haughton, Claire (1980). Green Immigrants. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. pp. 133–134. ISBN 0-15-636492-1. 
  2. ^ William Withering, An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses (Birmingham, England: M. Swinney, 1785).
  3. ^ "William Withering (1741-1799): A Birmingham Lunatic" Proc R Coll Physicians Edinb 2001; 31:77-83. Accessed 28 June 2009
  4. ^ Birmingham Civic Society
  5. ^ Wellington News July 2011
  6. ^ J.E., Mygatt (2001). "A Case for Collecting". Iowa Native Plant Society Newsletter 7: 3. Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  7. ^ "Author Query for 'With.'". International Plant Names Index. 
  8. ^ "William Withering (1741-1799): a biographical sketch of a Birmingham Lunatic." M R Lee, James Lind Library, accessed 25 September 2006
  9. ^ http://molinterv.aspetjournals.org/cgi/content/full/1/2/75
  10. ^ http://www.rpsgb.org.uk/pdfs/musevc2a.pdf
  11. ^ "The foxglove, "The old woman from Shropshire" and William Withering". J. Am. Coll. Cardiol. 5 (5 Suppl A): 3A–9A. May 1985. doi:10.1016/s0735-1097(85)80457-5. PMID 3886750. 
  12. ^ Medical Transactions, Volume 3, 1785, published by the College of Physicians, London. Transaction XVI, pp 255-286
  13. ^ Medical Transactions, Volume 3, 1785, published by the College of Physicians, London. Transaction XXVIII, p 448
  14. ^ Sheldon, Peter (2004). The Life and Times of William Withering: His Work, His Legacy'(which was a lot)'. ISBN 1-85858-240-7

Further reading[edit]

  • William Withering Junior (1822). Miscellaneous Tracts. Two volumes: a memoir by Withering's son, and a collection of many of his writings
  • Louis H Roddis (1936). William Withering - The Introduction of Digitalis into Clinical Practice. A brief biography
  • TW Peck and KD Wilkinson (1950). William Withering of Birmingham. A detailed biography
  • Ronald T Mann (1985). William Withering and the Foxglove. An account of the "Osler bequest", a collection of Withering's letters
  • J K Aronson (1985). An Account of the Foxglove and its Medical Uses 1785-1985. An annotated version of the Withering's work, with a modern analysis of the cases described
  • Jenny Uglow (2002). The Lunar Men. ISBN 0-571-19647-0. An account of the members of the Lunar Society, their endeavours, and relationships

External links[edit]