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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 23rd January 2014

Writing the script for the ‘Poisonous Plants 1-2-1’ video about foxgloves (plants in the genus Digitalis) meant going through my information about Dr. William Withering. A beautifully produced facsimile of his ‘An Account of the Foxglove’ is one of the jewels of my library and Withering himself is a hero.

William Withering

Image from Wellcome Images

The study he undertook, starting in 1774 and leading to the 1785 publication, has many things that make it relevant today. Of course, you wouldn’t do a study exactly as Withering did because he did not obtain informed consent from his subjects and he did not use any sort of control group but in other respects it has a lot to tell today’s researchers.

He took histories from his subjects so that their general health could be considered when evaluating his treatment. He recorded all his results, even if his treatment failed and the subject died. Before publication, he asked colleagues to see if they could obtain similar results from their patients so that he could show he wasn’t just seeing what he wanted to see. And, crucially, he made all of his results public with his book.

Although there have been biographies at intervals since the 18th century, the most recent in 2004, I’m surprised that Withering is not better known.

Many of the things that Withering did are still not done by pharmaceutical companies today and that makes me think he would be an interesting subject for a TV documentary detailing how he made his investigation of the foxglove and what it tells us about how trials should be conducted. It’s the sort of thing someone like Dr Ben Goldacre could narrate and would, I believe, make an interesting hour for BBC4.

Digitalis being harvested

Digitalis being harvested
Image from Wellcome Images

It gave me an idea for another TV programme, this time more a sort of BBC2 entertainment/documentary. As I don’t see me having the chance to do the research it would need there’s no reason to keep it to myself.

What I have in mind would be a sort of cross between ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. Many of Withering’s subjects were elderly (at least in terms of 18th century life expectancies) but there were some who were younger. Assuming that Withering’s use of the foxglove on these patients saved their lives then all of their 200+ years of descendants would not exist without him.

I think there would be some interesting stories to find. Romantically, you’d like to think those descendants would include people whose heroism had saved many lives or benefited the whole of humankind in some way though there

is also the chance that there would be one or more serial killers.

The trouble is that Withering only reported his subjects as ‘Master S-----‘ or ‘Mr. S----- of B----- h-----‘ so you’d need to do a lot of work to find out who they were. At the moment, I can’t see me having the opportunity to do that research.

For now, here’s the video.

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