Ask a Librarian

The Doctor and the Herb-Woman

By Kiersten Bryant, archives metadata intern

The McGovern Collections and Research Center is home to an extensive collection of original artwork published in various journals produced by the Medical Arts Publishing Foundation beginning in the early 1950s. One of these artworks is the cover art for the first issue of Heart Bulletin published for March-April 1952. The painting is meant to represent the story of how the foxglove compound digitalis was discovered to be a heart condition remedy in late Eighteenth Century England by Dr. William Withering.

A painting of Dr. William Withering, and an herb-woman with a foxglove plant, used as the cover for the first issue of the Heart Bulletin journal published by the Medical Arts Publishing Foundation
Original painting created for the cover of Heart Bulletin, March-April 1952.

The story, as told in the cover information for this issue, is this:

During the latter part of the Eighteenth Century a dean of one of the colleges at Oxford (England) was stricken with heart disease, for which his physicians could offer him no relief. At the same time, there lived an old herb-woman in neighboring Shropshire who was producing miraculous cures in patients with heart disease through the use of a “magic brew.” The dean sent for the old herb-woman as a last resort, and she fed him a cup of her potent tea. To the amazement of doctors in attendance, the dean recovered. A physician familiar with the dean’s case, Dr. William Withering, managed to obtain the secret from the woman. He found that the effective agent in the potion was made from the roots of a plant called foxglove.

According to the Texas Heart Institute website the foxglove compound called digitalis is still used today as treatment for congestive heart failure and heart rhythm problems.

The cover art is a painting created by Dutch artist Joseph F. Doeve for this issue of Heart Bulletin. Mr. Doeve was a frequent contributing artist to the Medical Arts Publishing Foundation publications, and produced several Heart Bulletin covers.

More images of some of the artwork in our Medical Arts Publishing Foundation collection can be seen here Hallowe’en Season and here Medical Artwork.