Withering, William

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(b. Wellington, Shropshire, England, March 1741; d. Birmingham, England, 6 October 1799)

medicine, botany, natural history.

Withering was the only son of a prosperous Wellington apothecary. He entered the University of Edinburgh in 1762, graduating M.D. in 1766.In 1767 he settled into a relatively quiet country practice at Stafford. Upon the death of Dr.William Small in 1775, Withering removed to Birmingham and Soon had one of the largest provincial practices of his day. He was active in Birmingham’s vigorous Lunar Society, other members of which included Joseph priestly, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, and James Watt. Withering was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1784. He was also a fellow of the Linnean Society and a foreign corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon. He visited Portugal twice in search of a salubrious climate which would slow the progressive deterioration of the chronic pulmonary condition (probably tuberculosis)from which he suffered the last fifteed years of his life. It ultimately caused his death at the age of fifty-eight.

Withering always remained primarily a practicing physician. Nevertheless, he had broad scientific interests and published significant work in botany, mineralogy, chemistry, and medicine. His botanical investigations began as a systematic collection of the flora indigenous to the Stafford area. He eventually extended his herbarium to include plants from all parts of Great Britain. His first major publication, A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain (1776), was little more than a translations of the portions of linnaeus’ writing relevant to English botany. As Withering acquired more botanical experience, however, his Botanical Arrangement became increasingly based on his first-hand observations. In the last edition published during his lifetime (1796), Withering effected a number of important taxonomic changes in the Linnaean system. He also Surveyed the British cryptogams, a class of plants imperfectly described by Linnaeus.

As a botanist Withering rarely penetrated beyond the descriptive level; yet his Botanical Arrangement was the product of many years’ patient, methodical study. It remained a standard British flora long after his death. Between 1805 and 1830 Withering’s son added four editions to the three that Withering had published.

Although Withering’s botanical interests were confined principally to indigenous British plants, his reputation on the Continent was such that the French botanist L’Héritier de Brutelle named a genus of plants (of the Solanaceae family) Witheringia. In 1796 the German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner also commemorated Withering’s name when he called barium carbonate “witherite.” Withering had in 1782 first demonstrated that naturally occurring barium carbonate is a compound distinct from other barium salts, such as the sulfite and the oxide. Withering also published several other chemical and mineralogical papers, chiefly in the Philosophical Transactions, including “Experiments on Different kinds of Marl” (1773) and “An Analysis of Two Mineral Substances, Viz. the Rowley Rag-Stone and the Toadstone” (1784). His chemical investigations were obviously nourished by his close friendship with Priestley, who communicated some of Withering’s early papers to the Royal Society. Withering was opposed to the phlogiston theory, which he satirized in a verse essay “The Life and Death of Phlogiston,” read before the Lunar Society in 1796. He never published his experiments on phlogiston, however, and though he mentioned in a letter having “given up my pursuits upon Phlogiston to Dr. Priestley,” the latter obviously found Withering’s strictures on the theory unconvincing.

In 1783 Withering translated Torbern Bergman’s Sciagraphia regni nineralis as the Outlines of Mineralogy, to which he added notes. He also chemically analyzed the waters at various spas in England and Portugal.

Withering maintained a lifelong interest inclimate. He kept an extensive meteorological journal, from which his son printed extracts in 1822. Withering was especially interested–personally and professionally–in the effects of different climates on patients suffering from consumption. He rather grimly concluded (after twice wintering in Portugal) that the dry Portuguese weather is ineffectual in such cases.

In addition to his scientific publications, Withering left two significant medical treatises. In his Account of the Scarlet Fever and Sore Throat he moved from a brief description of a 1778 Birmingham epidemic of scarlet fever to a more general consideration of the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of the disease. He insisted on its contagiousness and noted the occasional development of generalized edema shortly after the disappearance of the fever.

In 1785 Withering published his Account of the Foxglove, and Some of Its Medical Uses, which is a genuine classic of clinical medicine. In it he summarized a decade’s careful study of digitalis, the cardiotonic glycoside obtained from the leaves of the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). Withering honestly recorded both successes and failures in his trials with the drug, and the gradual development of his skill in using digitalis may be followed in the chronological series of 163 cases reported in his book. Withering learned to employ digitalis only in selected cases of edema (dropsy). He stressed that care must be taken in adjusting the dose, and he accurately described the signs and symptoms of digitalis toxicity and established clear guidelines for its rational use. Despite Withering’s modest but definite claims for the efficacy of the foxglove, the drug became for nineteenth-century clinicians a kind of panacea. It was prescribed (in dangerously large doses) for a variety of conditions. Only in the past few decades has the real merit of Withering’s work on the foxglove been recognized. The place of digitalis in the contemporary pharmacopoeia remarkably vindicates Withering’s prediction that “TIME will fix the real value upon this discovery.”

His published medical writings amply demonstrate that Withering’s reputation as a practitioner was justified. The breadth of his extraprofessional interests made him a proper member of the group of savants who constituted the Birmingham Lunar Society.


I. Original Works. Withering’s principal publications include the following: A Botanical Arrangement, 2 vols. (London, 1776); the 3rd ed., 4 vols. (Birmingham, 1796), is the most important. An Account of the Scarlet Fever and Sore Throat (London, 1779; 2nd ed. 1793; German trans., 1781). An Account of the Foxglove, and Some of Its Medical Uses (Birmingham, 1785). A limited facs. ed. was brought out in 1984. A Chemical Analysis of the Water at Caldas da Rainha (Lisbon, 1795).

There are in addition minor medical tracts and letters, Withering’s translation of Bergman’s Sciagraphia regni mineralis, and papers in the Philosophical Transactions, the Transactions of the Linnean Society, and Annals of Medicine. A convenient bibliography is given in The Miscellaneous Tracts of the Late William Withering, M.D. F.R.S., ed. by his son, 2 vols. (London, 1822), 207–209. This work reprints virtually all of Withering’s writings, with the exception of the Botanical Arrangement and Withering’s Edinburgh thesis De angina gangraenosa (Edinburgh, 1766). The latter has recently been translated by Charles D. O’Malley, Journal of the History of Medicine,8 (1953), 16–45.

II. Secondary Literature. The standard account of Withering’s life remains the Memoir by his son, included in the Miscellaneous Tracts (see above). There is a fullscale modern biography by T. Whitmore Peck and K. Douglas Wilkinson, William withering of Birmingham (Bristol-London, 1950). It includes a number of previously unpublished letters and a short bibliography. A recent paper has summarized Withering’s work on digitalis, J. W. Estes and P. D. White, “William Withering and the Purple Foxglove,” in Scientific American,212 (1965), 110–119. See also John F. Fulton, “The Place of William Withering in Scientific Medicine,” in Journal of the History of Medicine,8 (1953), 1–15. For the later history of digitalis therapy, see E. H. Ackerknecht, “Aspects of the History of Therapeutics,” in Bulletin of the History of medicine,36 (1962), 389–419. Some of Withering’s work on mineralogy is discussed by Frederick D. Zeeman, “William Withering as a Mineralogist, the Story of Witherite,” ibid.,24 (1950), 530–538.

Withering’s relations with various members of the Lunar Society may be best approached through Robert Schofield’s study, The Lunar Society of Birmingham (Oxford, 1963), with a splendid bibliography of published and manuscript material.

William F. Bynum