Elizabeth Blackwell’s beautiful illustrations of medicinal plants would be notable enough in their own right, but the unusual circumstances of their creation make them doubly interesting. She began the work to raise money to secure her husband’s release from a debtor’s prison. The herbal was issued in weekly parts between 1737 and 1739, each with four plates and a page of text. Blackwell not only drew, but also engraved and coloured the illustrations, using specimens from the Chelsea Physic Garden.
A herbal is a book of plants, describing their appearance, their properties and how they may be used for preparing ointments and medicines. The medical use of plants is recorded on fragments of papyrus and clay tablets from ancient Egypt, Samaria and China that date back 5,000 years but document traditions far older still. Over 700 herbal remedies were detailed in the Papyrus Ebers, an Egyptian text written in 1500 BC.
Around 65 BC, a Greek physician called Dioscorides wrote a herbal that was translated into Latin and Arabic. Known as ‘De materia medica’, it became the most influential work on medicinal plants in both Christian and Islamic worlds until the late 17th century. An illustrated manuscript copy of the text made in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) survives from the sixth century.
The first printed herbals date from the dawn of European printing in the 1480s. They provided valuable information for apothecaries, whose job it was to make the pills and potions prescribed by physicians. In the next century, landmark herbals were produced in England by William Turner, considered to be the father of British botany, and John Gerard, whose illustrations would inspire the floral fabric, wallpaper and tile designs of William Morris four centuries later.
She was born around 1700 in Aberdeen, daughter of a successful merchant. At the age of 28, she married Alexander Blackwell, a shady character whose ill-advised ventures would inadvertently lead to her magnificent herbal.
Alexander was well educated and practised as a physician – but without, it seems, troubling to acquire any formal medical training. When his right to call himself a doctor was challenged, the couple fled from Aberdeen to London.
After working briefly with a publishing company, Alexander set up in business as a printer. This brought him into conflict with the authorities yet again, since he’d not served the obligatory four-year printer’s apprenticeship. His breach of trade regulations incurred hefty fines – fines he was unable to pay. The print shop was closed down. Alexander’s debts continued to mount up, until he was finally ordered to a debtors’ prison.
With Alexander in prison, Elizabeth was forced to rely on her own resources to keep herself and her child. Before her marriage, she had received tuition in drawing and painting, as many well-to-do young women then did. She also proved to have a keen business sense, discerning that a gap existed in the book market for an up-to-date reference work for apothecaries, one that would include the many species recently discovered in North and South America.
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.
From 1737 to 1739, Elizabeth Blackwell published four plates each week, until she had produced 500 images. The complete work was published in two volumes and entitled 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 president of the Royal College of Physicians and its governing body loaned their authority by supplying the book’s title page with a rather understated Latin endorsement of the drawings, which “we judge very useful”. Extra gravitas was given by the attendant figures of the ancient Greeks, Theophrastus and Dioscorides.
Blackwell advertised the book by word of mouth and in several journals. She showed herself an adept businesswoman, striking mutually advantageous deals with booksellers that ensured the financial success of the herbal.
With the income from Elizabeth’s herbal, Alexander was released from debtor’s prison - a completely un-reformed character. He soon involved himself in more shaky business ventures. Debts mounted up debts yet again. Elizabeth was obliged to sell part of the herbal’s publication rights to raise additional money.
In 1742, Alexander left his family for Sweden, where he managed to win the post of court physician to the Swedish king. All went well until he unwisely embroiled himself in a political conspiracy over the royal line of succession – a course leading to the gallows. He was hanged for treason in 1748.
Though Elizabeth never saw Alexander again after he sailed for Sweden, she remained loyal to her husband, regularly sending him a share of the royalties from her herbal. Little is known of the rest of her life except that she died alone in 1758.
This is Blackwell’s illustration of the dandelion, a common wild flower used by apothecaries as a diuretic to stimulate the flow of urine. She describes the root as “about a finger thick and eight inches long full of a white bitter milk”. This latex is found inside the whole plant and was used to treat warts, corns and verrucas. Blackwell also notes that dandelion leaves were “much eaten as a salad in the spring”.
Pictures of plants from the New World include the tobacco plant, brought to Europe in 1556; and the sassafras tree, notable for having leaves of four different shapes, as Blackwell illustrates. She mentions the use of fresh tobacco leaves in ointments for wounds, ulcers, tumours and scrofula; dried leaves to induce vomiting; dust to destroy lice; and a drop of oil in the ear for easing earache.
The bark and dried root of the sassafras was first used by Native Americans, who taught its medicinal properties to the European settlers. It has served as a treatment for syphilis, scurvy, gout, rheumatism, colds and influenza. However, its main component, safrole, has been found to be toxic and sassafras is no longer recommended for medicinal use.
It came from the library of Sir Joseph Banks, a renowned botanist who sailed around the world with Captain Cook on his voyages of discovery. Banks assembled the finest natural history collection of his day, including works from all periods and in many languages. The pages of this copy of Blackwell’s herbal have annotations in his handwriting.
Banks was elected President of the Royal Society in 1778 and also became a trustee of the British Museum. So it’s not surprising that the Museum was bequeathed his library of some 16,000 volumes on his death in 1820. The books were transferred to the British Library on its foundation in 1973. Specimens collected by Banks are now mostly preserved in London’s Natural History Museum.
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