I was delighted to think of an excuse to show something from Blackadder, especially the “Wise woman” sketch – have there been many funnier TV programs ever? I thought that it would be interesting to think about the truth in this scene.
You may remember that Edmund Blackadder starts his quest for medical help by going to see the Doctor (he was advised to put leeches in his codpiece!). In Tudor towns there were qualified medical practitioners who could have been consulted, especially by wealthier people (such as Blackadder). For ordinary people though, qualified medical assistance may not have been so readily available.
According to Roy Porter most villages would have had their own ‘Wise woman’ or ‘Wise’, or ‘Cunning man’ to whom people could turn for help when illness struck. The state and the church didn’t approve of these people and would sometimes try to discourage or punish practitioners. Despite this disapproval, there often wasn’t anyone else for people to turn to and of course, if there was any medical help available it was often quite ineffective. A little while back, I came across a story which suggested that perhaps the ‘wise woman’ might have been of some benefit.
I attended a meeting at Birmingham University Medical School and noticed a picture behind the speakers on the stage. This picture showed a man holding a foxglove – when I got home I ‘Googled’ the words ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Foxglove’ and came across the story of William Withering.
Withering who was a surgeon at Birmingham General Hospital from 1775 was also a member of the famous ‘Lunar Society‘ along with people like Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and Erasmus Darwin. Withering was also an enthusiastic botanist known for his scorn of traditional herbal lore.
Withering was asked to see a woman who was suffering with ‘dropsy’ (this is now called Oedema in England or Edema in the US) which is a condition in which the person retains fluid and can become swollen – especially around the feet and ankles but also affecting other parts of the body including the lungs. It is a symptom of other problems, often heart or kidney disease – Withering’s diagnosis was that the outlook was bleak for the woman.
He was suprised to find later that she had been cured by a herbal tea – made to a secret recipe that had passed down through the generations. Withering searched the countryside for the secret, obtained the recipe which contained over twenty herbal ingredients and eventually worked out that the active ingredient came from the Foxglove.
Withering set to work perfecting his understanding of the use of the Foxglove in a series of experiments that would today gain him both notoriety and a life sentence in prison. He used patients at Birmingham General Hospital as Guinea pigs! many of these people died in the process of his experiments, Foxgloves being very poisonous plants. The active ingredient in Foxglove is a substance called ‘Digitalis’ – a drug still widely used in modern medicine to treat heart disease.
Fortunately for Withering the ‘wise woman’ he consulted was a bit more effective than the one seen by Blackadder. It is interesting to think that despite his scorn about herbal lore it led him to his greatest discovery.
(By the way – if you want to read more about the story of the Lunar Society I can really recommend this book.)