Portraits of the Past: William Withering

For the past few months, Biddle & Webb have been delighted to store a fascinating collection of portraits, courtesy of the University Hospitals Birmingham Charity. Painted by various artists between the 19th century and mid-20th century, the portraits depict prolific surgeons working in Birmingham hospitals during this period. Before the collection is put to auction, we would like to showcase a few of the life stories behind these amazing paintings.

The full collection will be put to auction on July 11th and will help to fund the charity’s work.


William Withering was born on 17th March 1741 in Wellington, Shropshire. Withering, whose father and uncle worked in medicine, grew up around the trade; he began his own career with a physician’s apprenticeship and a degree from the University of Edinburgh Medical School. After eventually moving to Birmingham, Withering co-founded the Birmingham General Hospital with colleague John Ash.

Visible in Withering’s portrait is a foxglove plant, representative of his best-known discovery: an avid botanist as well as a physician, Withering innovated the use of foxgloves (Latin name ‘digitalis’) in treating dropsy (swelling caused by heart failure). The plant had been used widely in folk medicine prior to this, but Withering’s published account, ‘An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses’, earned him great success. He worked alongside his wife, Helena, a botanical illustrator; the couple had three children.

In later life, Withering diagnosed himself with tuberculosis, and made frequent trips abroad for his health – en route home from one such trip, Withering’s ship was attacked by pirates. Withering eventually died from complications of tuberculosis at 58; in honour of his contributions to medicine, foxglove flowers were carved into his gravestone, as well as the plant Witheringia Solanacea, which was named after him. Also named after him was the mineral ‘witherite’, which he had studied during his life.

Today, Withering is remembered with a plaque in Edgbaston Golf Club; one of the Birmingham Moonstones (erected in honour of various members of the Lunar Society, of which Withering was a part); and with a Wetherspoons in his hometown of Wellington, which was named after him.

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