Notes from the John Martin Rare Book Room

A Withering Glance at Foxglove

Withering, William (1741-1799). An Account of the foxglove, and some of its medical uses, Birmingham, 1785.

Withering, William (1741-1799). An Account of the foxglove, and some of its medical uses, Birmingham, 1785.William Withering was a keen observer of plants and their medicinal uses and had already published a widely respected and comprehensive treatise on “Botanical Arrangement of all the vegetables” when this, his most famous work was printed. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh and later appointed an early physician to General Hospital, he noted the success of a complex herbal folk recipe in the treatment of “dropsy” (cardiac edema). Withering isolated the active component as the dried leaf of the foxglove (Digitalis purpura) which had been used indiscriminately (mostly as a diuretic) for centuries. It was Withering’s careful documentation and analysis of his many cases together with his instructions for preparation and dosage that introduced digitalis as a safe drug for a specific purpose. The book was written not only as a directive but as warning against the over-use of the drug which, of course, remains in use today. The exquisite hand-colored illustration of the foxglove plant included in this copy is in near mint condition.