News and Events

Botanical Buzz - The Foxglove

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Fascinating histories and stories associated with the botanical collection of the Dubbo Regional Botanic Garden are as abundant and diverse as the plants themselves. 

Plants have held the fascination of both bold adventurers and meticulous achievers. A gentleman falling into the latter category was William Withering, an eighteenth century English botanist and physician.

Withering’s publication "An account of the foxglove and some of its medical uses; with practical remarks on the dropsy, and some other diseases" is a seminal work in the development of modern therapeutics.

Withering became interested in the foxglove as a medicinal plant when he observed a patient that he expected to die, receive relief from the symptoms of dropsy after taking a herbal remedy.

Dropsy is an old term for the swelling of the legs (and occasionally the whole body) due to the accumulation of excess water. It is a symptom of congestive heart failure.

The herbal remedy had roughly twenty different ingredients. It induced violent vomiting amongst other possibly more lethal side effects. Through careful analysis Withering deduced that the highly poisonous foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) was the "active" ingredient in the formulation.

Withering conducted clinical trials of the foxglove (which contains the drug digitalis) on his patients over a period of nine years and demonstrated a thoroughness of clinical observation that was unusual for his time. He discovered that the traditional herbal remedy contained too much of the dangerous drug and worked out a safer dosage.

In his publication, Withering discusses 158 patients whom he treated with digitalis and of these, 101 patients with congestive heart failure experienced relief following the administration of the drug.

Digitalis was later discovered to contain many cardiac glycosides which increase the efficiency of the heart.

William Withering is still remembered and celebrated as an extraordinary physician and botanist who elevated a traditional folk remedy into scientific medical practice.

                                                                                                                                    By Ian McAlister & Karen Hagan