William Withering And The Problem Of Accurate Dosage
*This story is paraphrased from an excerpt found in the book Plants, People and Culture by acclaimed ethnobotanists, Dr. Michael J. Balick, and Dr. Paul Alan Cox. Their newest edition is out now; a book I highly recommend for all botanists, anthropologists, and herbal-remedy hobbyists alike 🙂
In 1775, physician and botanist, William Withering, finally succeeded in tracing the active ingredient of a herbal remedy he was investigating at the time to the dried leaves of the foxglove plant.
After careful observation, Withering recorded that foxglove, “has a power over the motion of the heart, to a degree yet unobserved in any other medicine.” As a result, he quickly began prescribing it to his patients suffering from dropsy — a condition where the heart fails to pump blood around the body at an adequate rate.
Prior to his “discovery” of this missing piece of the puzzle, foxglove had been used by folk healers and indigenous practitioners of medicine for centuries, but had not yet been isolated for purposes of scientific testing. In this case (like it so often goes with natural medicines), is it certainly not Withering who is responsible for discovering the healing effects of foxglove — rather, he just happened to be the first one to report his findings in a Western, scientifically standardized way.
In his research, however, he writes about the repeated difficulty he seemed to have in accurately estimating the dosage, having a frequent tendency to over-medicate the same people he was trying to treat.
That is, until he realized the importance of knowing when exactly to pick his plant medicine (3):
“[The leaves] I had found to vary much as to dose, at different seasons of the year; but I expected, if gathered always in one condition — when it was flowering late — and carefully dried, that the dose might be ascertained as exactly that of any other medicine; nor have I been disappointed in this expectation.” — William Withering
As it was, Withering was learning the big impact that factors such as time of year, season, and other environmental and preservation details can have on the dosage strength and overall effect of the drug.
Again, it’s the notion that without compiling a detailed chemical profile of the plant in question, herbal remedies are just as effective for improving chronic conditions and ailments as buying a lottery ticket is for winning the lottery — meaning there’s a whole lot of random luck involved.
Just like Withering came to realize, knowing exactly what you’re getting with your plant, and when to get it, can make all the difference between curing people (or sometimes doing the opposite).
I hope you found that this short explanation helps…
Now onto the chemically fingerprinted herbal remedies!