In 1785, an English physician, Dr. William Withering, published his account of experimentation with a collection of herbs he’d received from a witch. This stemmed from a patient he’d had who he was treating for “dropsy”, an old tyme term for edema or fluid under the skin, typically attributed to something we know today as congestive heart failure (CHF). Whether it is weakened by a heart attack, a viral infection, or many years of pumping against high blood pressure, a heart may start to pump inefficiently. Instead of moving blood around the body in a nice, orderly fashion, the blood backs up as it fails to move forward as well as it used to. This leads to the fluid part of the blood leaking out into areas like the legs (especially thanks to gravity) and the lungs, leading to the shortness of breath and fatigue that is associated with CHF.
So when the 18th century doctor had his patient show up appearing to be improved from a mysterious plant mixture given to him by a supposed witch, the doctor was curious and visited her. He was given a sample of foxglove and pursued testing of it for many years before publishing the account. He gave it to 160 of his own patients with various conditions and noted it seemed to improve the dropsy.
He described an active ingredient called digitalis that foxglove and many other plants contain. Today we know this medication as “digoxin” and it is still used to treat CHF in select cases. Digoxin affects the shifting of electrolytes into and out of heart cells with an overall effect of improving the pumping strength of the heart. This helps people move their blood through the kidneys and clear out all that edema. It’s a treatment but not a cure for CHF.
Mind you that digoxin can be dangerous in toxic doses. Starting with nausea, poor appetite, and vision problems, high doses can cause kidney issues, dangerous electrolyte levels, and cardiac arrest.
Nevertheless, Dr. Withering was keen to listen to the supposed witch in the woods who’d helped his patient and he ultimately helped legitimize–along with others–the use of this seemingly magical medicinal substance.
Doctor with a mustache.