Discovery of Podophyllin, Etc.

Botanical name: 

Selected writings of John King.

Related entries: Discovery of Podophyllin - Concentrated Medicines - Important Remedies

Herein is again recounted the history of the introduction of resin of Podophyllum as a therapeutic agent. This is the only claim made by Dr. King when asked who discovered this resin. It is sometimes difficult to know when to use the word discovery in connection with something that may or may not have been previously known, however slightly. We are all guilty of the substitution of the word discovery for introduction. As Professor King rightly states, resins were known before he stumbled upon resin of Podophyllum, as he did when he found a material new to him when attempting to prepare a hydro-alcoholic extract of Podophyllum. If new to him it was a discovery to him at least, but if known before, as it appears from Dr. King's statement, that the existence of resin in the root of Podophyllum was known to chemists and botanists before he was born, then is it only relatively a discovery. The discovery of its therapeutic virtues, however, must be conceded to Dr. King. He cites here the history of many agents about which more or less was known until some one individual acquired the distinction of making them prominent as medicines by introducing them into general practice. "To discover," "to introduce," and "to develop" have distinct meanings which we are very apt to lose sight of when writing of medicines, and in no field of human art has the lack of discrimination in the use of these phrases created more confusion that in that of the history of materia medica and therapeutics. Notwithstanding Professor King's admission concerning the possible previous knowledge of resin of Podophyllum, we think he is too modest in his claims of being an introducer only, for to all intents and purposes it was a discovery. Some resins had been known in European pharmacy and were coming into vogue in American medical practice; notably resin of jalap; but it remains to Professor King's credit to have been the discoverer of the first resin from American plants and of introducing it as a therapeutic agent.—Ed. Gleaner.

DISCOVERY OF PODOPHYLLIN, ETC.—I have been frequently asked the question if I was the discoverer of Podophyllin and some of the other resinoids, and as there has occasionally been considerable feeling manifested with the inquiry, I have deemed it better to make a reply through the columns of the Journal.

Resin is a constituent of many plants, and there is no doubt, from the records which have been handed down to the present age, that the ancient Greeks and Romans were cognizant of this fact. But, whether they were acquainted with the resin of Podophyllin I can not say. There is no doubt that the existence of resin in the root of this plant was known to chemists and botanists many years ago, probably before I was born, from the fact that in speaking of its known constituents they mention resin as one. I had paid no attention whatever to the resinous principles of plants until in 1835, when my attention was first called to them by Prof. Wm. Tully, now of Springfield, Mass., who gave me some information concerning several plants, but especially of the Cimicifuga racemosa. I prepared some of this and used it in practice. The resin of Podophyllum was accidentally discovered by me about the same time, while endeavoring to prepare a hydro-alcoholic extract of the root; and at that time I was not aware that it or the mode of obtaining it was known; but my first introduction to its therapeutical action having been of a serious character, I was obliged to examine several works in order to learn something more about its action upon the system, but could find nothing to enlighten me upon this point. As late as the fourth edition of the United States Dispensatory, published in 1839, I find on page 528 the following concerning a principle found in mandrake root by Mr. Hodgson, Jun.— "Should it be found to be the purgative principle of the plant, it would be entitled to the name of Podophyllin." So that up to 1839, about four years after my discovery of the active powers of the resin of Podophyllum, it would appear that the purgative principle of the plant was not known to the profession. In 1844 I published some remarks concerning this resin and some others, but no notice was taken of them by the profession, when in 1846 I again called attention to them in the Western Medical Reformer, after which Mr. W. S. Merrell prepared some, which was carefully tested by the late Prof. T. V. Morrow, and some of his associates, and to Mr. Merrell justly belongs the credit of having first prepared it for the profession, notwithstanding what may be said by other parties.

A few years after my knowledge of Podophyllum resin, I read a method of obtaining resins upon a plan similar to the one at present pursued, which if I am not mistaken was published in an early edition of Coxe's Dispensatory. But the fact that this resin was known before I was in existence, or that the method of obtaining it was also known, does not prove that its therapeutical powers were likewise known. I claim only the credit to introducing it to the profession as an active remedial agent, and until some one can show an earlier notice of its therapeutical powers than July, 1844, I shall continue to maintain my claim. I have no feeling in the matter; it is a subject of indifference to me whether I was anticipated by another or not, although there appear to be some who by their actions and assertions manifest much sensitiveness on this point. If another has preceded me in my claims, I shall be proud to acknowledge it and credit him with it, instead of endeavoring to abuse and misrepresent him; for be it as it may, it will not add to nor diminish the weight of my pockets financially considered, my peace of mind, nor my prospects for future happiness; nor do I think it will tend in the least to interfere with the yearly revolution of the earth around the sun.

Let us for a moment examine some other claims of a similar character: Ergot has been known for centuries, and had for a long time been used by midwives and others, but the credit of introducing it to the profession belongs to Dr. John Steams, of Saratoga Co., N. Y. Lupulin, the powder of hops, had also been known for centuries, but to Dr. Ives of New York belongs the credit of its professional introduction. Iodine was discovered by Courtois, but Coindet introduced it as a medicine. Ether had long been known as a remedial agent, but Dr. Jackson or Morton have the credit of introducing it as an anaesthetic. Cod-liver oil had long been used in popular practice, and was introduced to the profession in England by Percival. Silver had long been known, and the nitrate has been used for some years, but M. Serre introduced other preparations of this metal as remedies. Gold had been known from the earliest ages, and was undoubtedly used medicinally, but the credit of introducing it to the profession belongs to M. Chrestien, and so of many other agents. Soft soap has undoubtedly been known for centuries, but as a remedy in itch it was introduced by Pfeuffer; and possibly it might be found very efficacious for those who have such powerful itchings for claims to which they are not entitled, or for tearing down claims which they are struggling uselessly to settle upon themselves.

I have received several letters concerning Keith & Co's preparations, in reply to which I will say I have not used them for the last two or three years, and consequently know nothing about them. Shortly after my publication concerning the adulterations found in the preparations of this firm, I saw Dr. Keith, and was informed by him that such adulterations were not authorized by him, nor was he aware of their existence until my article called his attention to it. He also stated that it should not be the case again: since which, however, I have not even seen them. Should they prove to be pure and reliable preparations, the profession may rest assured that I would more cheerfully announce the fact than to state differently, as I have no personal feelings towards this firm, and have a strong desire to know that their articles are just what they should be.—J. KING, College Journal of Medical Science, 1857.

The Biographies of King, Howe, and Scudder, 1912, was written by Harvey Wickes Felter, M. D.