17th March 1741. Beware of Witch’s Fingers.

The foxglove known as Dead Man’s Bells or Witch’s Fingers, is first recorded in the reign of Edward III. The name probably derives from ‘Folks Glove’, the bells being where the ‘little folk’ lived in Welsh legend.

The efficacy of foxglove purpurea in medicine, has been known since the Dark Ages, being also one of the medieval ‘Trials by Ordeal’, where if one survived the ‘ordeal’, one was deemed innocent. As foxglove is extremely poisonous to humans and animals, few would have survived its enforced consumption.

It is a genus of about 20 species and is a cardio-active steroid that exerts a specific and powerful effect on the muscles of the heart.(1)

It was the Scot, William Withering, botanist, geologist, chemist and physician, born Today in 1741, who was the first to use foxglove in 1775 on patients; the discovery of the active ingredient Digitalis, had to await the next century.(2)

One of his collaborators was Jonathan Stokes, a physician and botanist, who like Withering was a member of the scientific Lunar Society.

He was an early user of digitalis and collaborated with Withering in an ‘Account of the Foxglove and its medical uses’ 1785, which was used for dropsy, associated with heart disease.



In 1775 one of Withering’s patients had acquired a ‘cure’ for his ailment from a gypsy. Withering keen to find out what the herbal remedy contained tracked him down and bought the recipe. He found that foxglove seemed to be the magic ingredient.

He now proceeded to use foxglove, linking dosage with patient response in an attempt at isolating active ingredients for their effects.

In 1792 Stokes worked on Withering’s standard work on botany (the 3rd Volume of the 2nd edition): ‘The Botanical Arrangement of all vegetables naturally growing in Britain’.

However Withering fell out with Stokes on his contribution to the new 2nd edition, as he had with fellow scientist, Erasmus Darwin, who accused Withering of poaching his patient, an early example of academic plagiarism.

Withering was caught up with the 1791 riots in Birmingham, when his friend and fellow member of the Lunar Society, Joseph Priestley’s home was burned. Withering was prepared to flee but the servants held out until the military arrived.

(1) Steroids are group of cyclic, organic compounds, which are important in hormonal functions.

(2) Withering died 6.10.1799 and is credited with having the first WC in Birmingham. He has a memorial plaque at St. Bartholomew’s, Edgbaston, along with a Blue Plaque at his old home Edgbaston Hall (now a golf club). There is a chair in medicine at Birmingham University in his name.

Stokes died 18.4.1831.


Nowadays Digitoxin is used in treatment which is a cardiac glycoside,(containing glycoside (sugar), an organic compound. It is also a secondary metabolite used by plants in defence.

Digitoxin is the poison used in Agatha Christie’s, Appointment with Death 1938.

Ref: bris.ac.uk/depts/chem/digitalis.

Ref: william_withering.org.

Ref: jonathan_stokes.org. Pic Ref.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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