Letter from Erasmus Darwin to James Watt, 1794/05/25

25 May 1794

Darwin writes to Watt outlining a range of treatments for Watt’s daughter, Jessy. This letter includes details of the use and preparation of foxglove (digitalis) and the suggestion that inducing sea-sickness may cure ulcers.


Sunday May 25-94

Dear Sir,

If Miss Jessy does not soon find some relief in respect to the inflammatory symptoms, I mean “the sharpness and the quickness join’d” of her pulse, by the use of the antimonial, I should wish to try two or three emetics of ipecacuhan, suppose ten grains of the powder in a tea-cup [of] warm water, – taken in a morning for three successive mornings – or longer if they seem of advantage.

The use of emetics is to promote absorption from the lungs, which is so evident in the exhibition of foxglove. Now no ulcers can heal, except the absorption is at least equal to the deposition in the ulcer.

I once saw foxglove heal ulcers in the lungs as evidently as one case (or indeed two) could show; and Mr Hunt, a surgeon of Loughboro’, assures me, he has cured as he believes 3 or 4 by the same remedy. But I don’t believe it succeeds so well unless it produces sickness. The way I now use it is to put 4 ounces of leaves of foxglove nicely dried and coarsely powder’d into 8 ounces of proof spirit, that is into 4 ounces of rectify’d spirit mix’d with 4 ounces of water and set by the fire to make a tincture, which must be pour’d off from the powder in a day or two. Two drams of this is a dose mix’d with an ounce of pepper-mint water – twice a day.

As the foxglove is liable to operate too harshly, I should advise to try the ipecacuhan for 3 or 4 or 5 mornings immediately if she has not recieved benefit by the James’ powder already.

If swinging could be perform’d by being placed on a chair, and whirl’d circularly and horizontally, so as to induce sea-sickness once or twice a day, even without vomitting by it, it might like real sea-sickness promote absorption – which is the means of curing self-spreading ulcers.

If you try these two things, the emetic of ipecacuhan, and the circular swinging for three days, you may possibly note some advantage.

If you think afterwards of the foxglove, it should be taken for 2 or 3 days in doses of one dram twice a day, and then in zi/? if not effect is percieved – then in zii.

Mrs Darwin communicated your letter to Dr Beddoes – I was from home. He goes to Mr Keir’s to day, or tomorrow.

The Bark-dust may be tried, or the flores zinci along with the emetics above recommended, as they act externally by stimulating the surface of the ulcer into absorption.

Pray let me hear from you in a few days.

Dr Beddoes has been inform’d of acid applications inducing scrophulous ulcers to heal. – How? – by the stimulus of the acid. – Hence I suspect that carbonic acid gas and atmospheric air of each equal parts would tend to heal pulmonic ulcers – and that oxegene gas ¼ to atmospheric air would stimulate pulmonic ulcers into healing more certainly than azote or hydrogen, according to some foreign experiments.

Pray converse with Dr Beddoes on this circumstance, which is contrary to his own theory. The inflammatory state, and ulcerous state may require different treatment.

Present my most respectful compliments and best wishes to the ladies, and believe me
your much obliged
and affect. friend

E Darwin

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Image creators: Dr Darwin, Erasmus (Creator)
Image courtesy of: Birmingham Archives
Donor ref: JWP/4/23/32