A Curious Herbal: Gorgeous Illustrations from Elizabeth Blackwell’s 18th-Century Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants
Time-travel to the dawn of modern medical science via the stunning art of a self-taught woman illustrator and botanist.
By Maria Popova
A century before botany swung open the backdoor to science for Victorian women and ignited the craze for herbaria — none more enchanting than the adolescent Emily Dickinson’s forgotten herbarium — a Scottish woman by the name of Elizabeth Blackwell (1707–1758) published, against all cultural odds, an ambitious and scrumptiously illustrated guide to medicinal plants, titled A Curious Herbal: Containing Five Hundred Cuts of the Most Useful Plants Which Are Now Used in the Practice of Physick (public library).
Blackwell — not to be confused with the 19th-century physician of the same name, who became the first woman to earn a medical degree from an American university — was not yet thirty when she began the project. It was a rare triumph of turning desperation into inspiration, or what Audre Lorde called turning fear into fire for creative work: Impoverished beyond imagination, with her husband in debtor’s prison and a young child to care for at home, Blackwell decided to enlist her early training in painting — women’s access to formal education was still centuries ahead — in saving her family. But she didn’t yet know exactly how.
After befriending the head curator Chelsea Physic Garden — a teaching facility for apprentice apothecaries established several decades earlier — she realized that there was a need for a handbook depicting and describing the garden’s new collection of mysterious plants from the New World. A keen observer, a gifted artist, and an entrepreneur by nature, she set about bridging the world’s need and her own.
Blackwell took rooms near the garden and began painting the plants as she saw them. She then took the drawings to her husband’s cell and had him supply each plant’s name in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. (The Linnaean classification system did not yet exist — Carl Linnaeus, born the same year as Blackwell, was yet to revolutionize taxonomy with his binomial nomenclature.) After producing an astonishing 500 drawings — many of species now endangered or altogether extinct, species falling out of our dictionary and imagination — she engraved the copper printing plates for the images and text herself, and hand-colored the illustrations.
In 1737, just around her thirtieth birthday, Elizabeth Blackwell began publishing A Curious Herbal, which has since been digitized by the wonderful Biodiversity Heritage Library — one of the most inspired and inspiring digital scholarship initiatives.
I have restored a selection of her gorgeous illustrations and made them available as prints, benefiting The Nature Conservancy to support their noble, necessary work of preserving our planet’s biodiversity.
Punctuating the pictorial splendor are the fascinating fossils of modern medicine — folk remedies like the use of cucumber seeds to treat kidney stones and urinary tract infections, stinging nettles to stop internal bleeding and counter coughs, mistletoe (now studied for its capacity to shrink tumors) to fight “convulsion fits, the apoplexy, palsy, and vertigo,” and the world’s first mass-market antidepressant: St. John’s Wort to allay “melancholy and madness.”
Across from her illustration of the coffee plant, Blackwell explains:
Accounted good for those who are of a cold, flegmatic constitution. But for persons of a thin, hot and dry temperament, the drinking it too much may bring on them nervous distempers.
Radiating from the pages is also the welcome disorientation of time travel, deconditioning our habit of mistaking today’s culturally constructed commonplaces for ahistorical givens: Blackwell’s bright-red tomato blazes the reminder that this plant — so common today as to be commonplace the world over — was then an exotic native of the New World, known in the Old World as love-apple.
Against this botanical backdrop of cultural change arise certain cultural constants — under the entry for Agnus castus, commonly known as chaste tree for the belief that it preserves chastity, Blackwell wryly remarks, as every human culture has always remarked on its own moral collapse under the forces of progress, that “this age has left that medicine out of the dispensatory as useless.” (I am reminded of James Baldwin’s incisive remarks on Shakespeare: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” The past is better. The past is worse. Our misplaced historical nostalgia is a hideout for the terror of our own temporality and the concession that our present is always someone else’s past, both better and worse.)
Blackwell’s book did for plants what Sarah Stone would do for animals a generation later with her trailblazing natural history illustrations of exotic species. The handsome two-volume set, featuring hundreds of Blackwell’s hand-colored full-page engravings, was embraced by the medical community and lauded by the Royal College of Physicians. With the revenues, she was able to secure her husband’s release from prison. Outliving both Elizabeth and her husband, the book remained in print for decades — a rarity in the era’s ecosystem of publishing. Sir Joseph Banks — who christened Australia’s Botany Bay after alighting there with Captain Cook and who would become president of the Royal Society twenty years after Blackwell’s death — cherished his copy of her book and bequeathed it to the British Library. As Blackwell’s illustrated botany made its way across Europe, it eventually reached Linnaeus himself, who came to admire her work so ardently that he gave her the affectionate nickname Botanica Blackwellia.
Complement with the stunning algae cyanotypes of the self-taught Victorian botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, who more than a century after Blackwell and shortly after the invention of photography became the first person to publish a scientific book illustrated with photographic images, then revisit poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s wondrous 19th-century illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees and French artist Paul Sougy’s vibrant mid-twentieth-century scientific diagrams of plants, animals, and the human body.
Published January 29, 2020