Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal

For our August "Treasure of the Month", Librarian Will Beharrell introduces a beautiful botanical work with a troubled history

Published on 28th July 2021

This month’s treasure has a fascinating if troubled history. Elizabeth Blackwell’s Curious Herbal¸ first issued in weekly parts between 1737 and 1739, and containing some 500 engraved images (or “cuts”) of medicinal plants, was both a passion project and a desperate bid by its author to release her husband from a debtors’ prison.

Lithograph portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell (c.1700-1758)
Lithograph portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell (c.1700-1758)

Born in Aberdeen around 1700 to a well-heeled mercantile family, Elizabeth secretly married her cousin Alexander Blackwell in 1728. A shady character of doubtful honesty, Alexander’s double-dealing would indirectly lead to the production of Elizabeth’s masterwork. After a scandal involving Blackwell’s medical qualifications, the couple hastily relocated to London, where Alexander quickly established himself as a jobbing printer. Unfortunately, not unlike medicine, the business of printing was a protected profession—with a compulsory apprenticeship—and when the printers’ guilds questioned Alexander’s credentials he was swiftly and harshly fined.

Unable to pay, Alexander was condemned to a debtors’ prison, leaving Elizabeth and their first child to fend for themselves. Determined to save her family from penury, Elizabeth capitalised on the artistic refinements she had acquired as a young girl in order to create a fashionable and lucrative herbal, with a focus on the “curious” exotic plants emerging from East Asia and South America. With the help of Isaac Rand, curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and with text supplied and corrected from her husband’s cell, Elizabeth gradually built up a two volume work of some 500 images, with each weekly instalment containing four pages of italic text to a single leaf of copperplate engravings.

The title page of Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal
The title page of Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal

With a reassuring title-page endorsement from the Royal College of Physicians, the Herbal was a modest success. Complimentary chatter in botanical circles saw discussion of the book reach our own Carl Linnaeus in Uppsala in 1739; a letter preserved in our archive (ref: GB-110/LM/LP/MED/1/1/2) from the Swiss botanist Albrecht von Haller alerts Linnaeus to the publication of a new “Herbarium curiosum” in London. A subsequent brief note in Linnaeus’ hand suggests the title had piqued his interest.

The Linnean Society’s copy is not from Linnaeus’ library; it was given to the Society by the surgeon William Tiffin Iliff FLS (elected 1833), possibly at his death in 1887. Sadly no trace of the gift survives in our donations registers. It's a strangely mangled copy, with both title pages cut at the border of the impressed copperplate, and then pasted—scrapbook-like—onto another leaf. We can only speculate as to why this was done. Nonetheless, it’s a handsome and somewhat scarce book (especially in its uncoloured state) and sits most comfortably among the other fine volumes in our rare and early-printed book collection.

Engraved plate 54 from Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal, alongside an example of the accompanying text, also engraved
Engraved plate 54 from Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal, alongside an example of the accompanying text, also engraved

Sadly the outcome for Elizabeth and Alexander was not so happy. Through her industry and perseverance, Elizabeth was able to secure her husband’s release from prison, but the reprieve was only temporary, and he soon fell into further difficulties. In 1742, with creditors knocking, Alexander abandoned the family altogether for Sweden. While there he managed to acquire the improbable position of court physician to Frederick I, an appointment that should have secured his fortune. But ever a magnet for trouble, Alexander embroiled himself in a courtly intrigue involving the line of succession, and was executed for conspiracy in 1748.

Elizabeth never saw her husband again after his flight from Britain, but remained staunchly loyal to the end (even sending a share of the royalties from the herbal to her estranged and wayward partner). Not much is known of her later life, except that she produced no more botanical works that we know of, and died alone in 1758. An unhappy end, but the book stands as a monument to Elizabeth Blackwell’s skill as botanist, illustrator, and entrepreneur, and offers a window into the unsettled times in which she lived and worked.

Will Beharrell, Librarian

Lithograph portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell from the US National Library of Medicine, and in the Public Domain.

All other images taken by the author.

Library Catalogue Record

Blackwell, Elizabeth, active 1737. A curious herbal, : containing five hundred cuts, of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick. Engraved on folio copper plates, after drawings taken from the life. / by Elizabeth Blackwell. To which is added a short description of ye plants; and their common uses in physick. London: Printed for John Nourse at the Lamb without Temple Bar., MDCCXXXIX. [1739].

Item Reference: RF.739

View the online catalogue record