Elizabeth Blackwell, 18th century illustrator of medical plants

February 19, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers.

Elizabeth Blackwell’s husband, Alexander, was not to be trusted, especially with money. He tried to skirt the law, with little or no thought to his income, his wife, his family, or his own circumstances.

They had come to London from Aberdeen sometime in the 1730s, he with medical experience and lots of prospects. He set up a printing shop in London, even though he had not served an apprenticeship and was not licensed to do so. That put him at odds with trade regulations and earned him a hefty fine. Unable to pay it, he was hauled off to debtors prison.

Elizabeth’s prospects were bleak, with starvation a real possibility.

She did, however, have one skill. She could draw.

And from what her husband had told her about the state of 18th-century medicine, she determined that there was what we would call in the modern terms “a gap in the market.”

At that time, medicine depended on plants for relief and cures of medical ailments. A book that cataloged these plants was called a herbal, but no herbal had yet been produced that listed the many new plants being brought in from North and South America. That’s when things started to happen for her:

She determined to produce a new herbal, making the illustrations herself and enlisting her imprisoned husband to use his medical knowledge to write the texts to accompany them. Elizabeth’s project received the support of the Society of Apothecaries and several leading doctors. She took rooms in Swan Walk next to the Chelsea Physic Garden, which had been established in 1673 as a garden for teaching apprentice apothecaries to identify plants and was now cultivating the exotic new plants from the Americas. 

With the support of the Isaac Rand, curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden’s, Elizabeth began drawing the plants from life. She took the drawings to her husband in prison, who identified them and provided their names in several different languages. Elizabeth then engraved the copper plates for printing. Finally, she hand-coloured each of the printed images. This great accomplishment would usually have taken at least three different artists and craftsmen. Source: A Curious Herbal – The British Library

During the next two years, she produced four plates a week. Her completed work included more than 500 illustrations and was published in two volumes as A Curious Herbal containing five hundred cuts of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick, to which is added a short description of ye plants and their common uses in physick.

The book eventually raised enough money to keep the family together and to spring Alexander from prison. Unfortunately, his confinement didn’t teach him much. He got involved in more ill-advised business ventures, and Elizabeth had to seel some of the publication rights to bail him out. In 1842, he went to Sweden, leaving the family behind in London. There, he talked his way into the king’s court as the king’s physician. Elizabeth continued to send him money regularly from the profits from her book.

When the royal succession became an issue, Alexander found himself on the losing side. That resulted in a charge of treason and a trip to the gallows in 1748.

What happened to Elizabeth after that is unclear, but we know that she died 10 years later in 1758.

What she left behind in A Curious Herbal stands as a beautiful record of her life.

Note: This Elizabeth Blackwell should not be confused with Elizabeth Blackwell, who in the 19th century was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.

Illustration: A dandelion and it medical uses.


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