Over time, various conditions and diseases have suffered name transformations that range from the most relevant to the most bizarre. This one could be considered cute, not taking into consideration the “appealing” characteristics it has as manifestation: Dropsy is an old term used for the accumulation of water (edema) in soft tissues, usually caused by congestive heart failure (fluid buildup around the heart).
The starting point of the drug that would relieve sufferers from the dropsy is settled around the time a freshly graduated medical student from the University of Edinburgh, William Withering (1741-1799), opened his practice in Stafford, in 1767. Besides medicine, William was very passionate about botany, a passion he materialized into two volumes about The Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Grown in Great Britain(1776) in which he presented a most scientific outlook regarding accurate experiments, documentation and rejection of the old “fables of the ancient herbalists”. The year 1775 found Dr Withering on the road, going back and forth between Stafford (where he still visited some of his patients) and Birmingham, where a friend, Dr. Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) had advised him to move.
“After some time and effort, the good doctor managed to obtain a list with the ingredients that made up the miracle concoction. There is not much need to say that his medical experience and his botanical interests complemented each other so well that Withering immediately saw the key ingredient out of the more than twenty different herbs on the list.”
Fate twisted and turned and arranged things in such a way that on one of his trips, while waiting to change horses, a stable worker asked him to come and look at a woman who was suffering horribly from dropsy – her chest, abdomen, legs and feet were gravely swollen. Treatments at that time involved purging and fluid drainage from the affected areas but did not offer much improvement to the patient’s state. Withering chose not to intervene and decided only to observe the disease’s evolution, because he considered the unsatisfactory outcome of the “traditional” procedure not worth the patient’s suffering. To his surprise, the next week when he went to see how the patient was doing, she was cured. The woman explained that she had been given an herbal mixture from an old woman in Shropshire and that the recipe was a big secret.
After some time and effort, the good doctor managed to obtain a list with the ingredients that made up the miracle concoction. There is not much need to say that his medical experience and his botanical interests complemented each other so well that Withering immediately saw the key ingredient out of the more than twenty different herbs on the list. The “culprit” was Foxglove or Digitalis purpurea, a plant that proved to have diuretic properties and remarkable effects on swelling.
Over the next ten years, Dr William Withering brewed, infused and patiently observed the plant’s life cycle in order to obtain the best results. In parallel, he used the obtained potions on several patients and recorded every single detail of the process and outcome – whether it was bad or good. His meticulosity was unchanged for all of his one hundred and five patients.
As for every good discovery, opposition had to arise. The death of an unfortunate (a heavy drinker that had cirrhosis and secondary massive accumulation of fluids in the abdominal region) or dissatisfying results (no effect on fluids in ovarian cysts or on the brain) briefly cast a shadow upon the herb’s good name. Nevertheless, the curative properties prevailed and the active principal was isolated in 1841 after numerous attempts. The compound obtained was a cardiac glycoside (a class of medications used to treat heart failure and certain irregular heartbeats) and was named digitoxin.
Winters, Robert. Accidental Medical Discoveries: Tales of Tenacity, Sagacity, and Plain Dumb Luck, Denmark, 2013, pp. 100
A History of Edema and Its Management: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9185118