William Withering Biography (1741-1799)


William Withering was born at Wellington, Shropshire, England on March 17, 1741; he died in Birmingham, England on October 6, 1799. Withering was the sonof an apothecary at Wellington. He is considered to have been one of the mostcapable clinicians of his time. He also acquired considerable distinction asa botanist, which earned him the sobriquet "the flower of physicians." He isparticularly memorable for his pioneering work in the use of digitalis. After graduating form Edinburgh Medical School in 1766, he served as physician atStafford Infirmary from 1776 to 1775. On the death of William Small (1734 to1775), one of the founders of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, Erasmus Darwin invited Withering to take over Small's medical practice in Birmingham. (Withering also became a member of the Lunar society, and several of its membersbecame his patients.) Withering went on to establish a successful practice, and became physician to the General Hospital in Birmingham. In the last ten years of his life, Withering suffered a great deal from pulmonary disease. To combat his ill health, he lived in thermostatically controlled rooms, a way oflife that inspired the pun "the flower of Physic is Withering."

Withering's career was marked by exceptional versatility. He described the scarlatina and scarlatina sore throat epidemics of 1771 and 1778, and in 1793 recommended a remarkably modern treatment for phthisis. His Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables (1776) is considered a masterpiece; it remained a standard work for over a century. Other endeavors embraced the fields of minerology (the mineral witherite, or barium carbonate, is named after him), climatology, chemistry (he opposed the phlogiston theory), and music (he played the flute and harpsichord); he also was a breeder of cattle and dogs. In1776, Withering learned from an elderly woman of Shropshire that foxglove iseffective in treating dropsy. In Withering's time, dropsy was considered tobe a primary disease, and as he did not know the distinction between cardiacand renal dropsy, he soon began experimenting with its use in heart diseases.Although he was disappointed to find that cerebral dropsy (hydrocephalus) and ovarian (cystic) dropsy did not yield to the drug, he began recommending foxglove wherever he could> By 1783, foxglove was included in the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia. Withering's views on foxglove were supported by Cullen, but disputed by Lettsom. In 1785, he published his Account of the Foxglove, inwhich he described the proper use of digitalis in scientifically controlled dosage for the treatment of dropsy; in it he also hinted at its possible use in heart disease, for which it is still widely prescribed. Withering also included a protest in his book against certain abuses of digitalis that were thenbeginning to arise. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1785, and contributed five papers to that Society's Philosophical Transactions (three of these are concerned with minerology). When he died, Withering was buried in the old church at Edgbaston; the monument over his grave is adorned withfoxglove.

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