Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Withering, William

WITHERING, WILLIAM (1741–1799), physician, botanist, and mineralogist, was born at Wellington, Shropshire, in March 1741, being the only son of Edmund Withering, a surgeon, and his wife Sarah Hector, a kinswoman of Richard Hurd [q. v.], bishop of Worcester. Withering was educated by Henry Wood of Ercall until 1762, when he entered the university of Edinburgh, graduating M.D. in 1766. He devoted himself specially to the study of chemistry and anatomy, joined the Medical Society of Edinburgh, and became a freemason, devoting his hours of leisure to the German flute and harpsichord. At Edinburgh he made the acquaintance of Richard Pulteney [q. v.], the historian of British botany. After a visit to Paris Withering settled down in practice at Stafford, where he remained from 1767 to 1775, acting during most of that time as sole physician to the county infirmary. Here, too, he began to collect plants, doing so at first for the lady patient who became his wife. In 1775, on the death of Dr. Small, Withering removed to Birmingham, where he soon acquired a practice as large and as lucrative as that of any physician out of London, and for thirteen years acted as chief physician to the Birmingham General Hospital. In 1776, the year after his settling in Birmingham, Withering published his most important work, ‘A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables naturally growing in Great Britain, according to the System of the celebrated Linnæus; with an easy Introduction to the Study of Botany;’ and about the same time he evinced his interest in Spain by assisting (Sir) John Talbot Dillon [q. v.] with chemical and botanical notes to his ‘Travels’ through that country. He became an active member of the Society for Promoting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and of the celebrated Lunar Society, in which he was associated with Joseph Priestley [q. v.], Matthew Boulton [q. v.], and James Watt [q. v.], and was for a time engaged in chemical researches to combat, as he says, ‘that monster Phlogiston’—a subject which he, however, handed over to his friend Priestley. His attention being for a time directed to mineralogy, he communicated to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of the Royal Society—of which he was elected a fellow in 1784—analyses of Rowley ragstone and toadstone in 1782, and experiments and observations on ‘terra ponderosa,’ or barium carbonate (afterwards named Witherite in his honour), in 1784, and in 1783 published a translation of Sir Torbern Bergmann's ‘Sciagraphia Regni Mineralis,’ with notes by himself, under the title of ‘Outlines of Mineralogy.’ In 1786 Withering moved to Edgbaston Hall, until then the residence of Sir Henry Gough Calthorpe, where he amused himself by breeding Newfoundland dogs and French cattle, and where he completed the second edition of the ‘Botanical Arrangement,’ for which work he constantly employed two professional plant-collectors. Withering was not himself present at the dinner in July 1791 in commemoration of the French revolution which gave rise to the riots in which Priestley's house was sacked; but, the disturbance growing, he felt compelled to fly, taking with him his books and specimens in wagons loaded up with hay, though the arrival of the military ultimately saved his house from destruction. In December 1792, after the publication of the third volume of the ‘Botanical Arrangement,’ which dealt in a most original manner with the fungi and other cryptogams, Withering, who was long threatened with consumption, sailed for Lisbon, where he remained until the following June. While there, at the request of the Portuguese court he analysed the hot mineral waters of Caldas da Rainha, and on revisiting Lisbon in October 1793 presented a memoir on the subject to the Royal Academy of Sciences, and was made a foreign corresponding member of that body. The memoir was published both in the ‘Transactions’ of the Academy and in the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’ As the result of his plant-collecting in Lisbon he drew up a ‘Floræ Ulyssipponensis Specimen,’ which is included in his ‘Miscellaneous Tracts,’ collected by his son in 1822. Withering came to the conclusion that the climate of Lisbon was of no service in cases of consumption, and, travelling through the south of England on his return, decided that the Undercliff of the Isle of Wight would be far preferable. He then purchased from Priestley his house, ‘The Larches,’ which had been sacked by the mob in 1791, and here he spent the five remaining years of his life, living mainly in his library, which was maintained artificially at a uniform temperature of 65° F. His son, indeed, maintains in the memoir prefixed by him to his father's ‘Miscellaneous Tracts’ that nothing showed his skill as a physician more than the way in which he prolonged his own frail existence. Among the distinguished men who visited him at Birmingham were Camper, Necker, Calonne, Reinhold Forster, and Afzelius. The last-mentioned botanist, demonstrator in the university of Upsal, revised Withering's herbarium in preparation for the third edition of the ‘Botanical Arrangement,’ which appeared in 1796; and Thunberg, the successor of Linné, sent him Swedish plants for the purposes of the same work, and lent his sanction to Withering's modification of Linné's classification by the merging of the Gynandria, Monœcia, Diœcia, and Polygamia in the other classes. Withering died on 6 Oct. 1799, it being wittily said during his long illness that ‘the flower of physicians is indeed Withering.’ He was buried at Edgbaston old church, where his monument bears a bust and is ornamented with the foxglove, which he did much to introduce into the pharmacopœia, and with Witheringia, a genus of Solanaceæ dedicated to his honour by L'Héritier. The fine portrait of Withering painted by Charles Frederick von Breda in 1792 was engraved by W. Bond as a frontispiece to the ‘Miscellaneous Tracts,’ as well as by Ridley for Thornton's collection. Withering married, on 12 Sept. 1772, Helena, only child of George Cookes of Stafford, by whom he had two children, who survived him—William (1775–1832) and Charlotte.

His chief works, in addition to those already sufficiently described, were:

  1. ‘Dissertatio Inauguralis de Angina Gangrænosa,’ Edinburgh, 1766.
  2. ‘A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables naturally growing in Great Britain,’ London, 1776, 2 vols. 8vo; 2nd edit., much improved by Dr. Jonathan Stokes, Birmingham, 3 vols., vols. i. and ii. 1787, vol. iii. 1792; 3rd edit., Birmingham, 1796, 4 vols.; 4th edit., enlarged by William Withering the younger, London, 1801, 4 vols.; 5th edit., ‘corrected and considerably enlarged,’ Birmingham, 1812, 4 vols.; 6th edit., London, 1818, 4 vols.; 7th edit., London, 1830, 4 vols.; another edit., ‘corrected and condensed’ by William Macgillivray, London, 1830, 4to (3rd edit. of this abbreviation, London, 1835, 8vo); 8th edit., London, 1852, 8vo.
  3. ‘An Account of the Scarlet Fever and Sore Throat, or Scarlatina Anginosa,’ 1778; 2nd edit. 1793. 4. ‘An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses,’ 1785, 8vo.

[Memoir by his son prefixed to Miscellaneous Tracts, London, 1822, 8vo; Colvile's Worthies of Warwickshire, 1870, 4to.]

G. S. B.