A Curious Herbal: 500 Beautiful Illustrations of Medicinal Plants Drawn by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1737 (to Save Her Family from Financial Ruin)

Some­times beau­ti­ful things come out of ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stances. This does not jus­ti­fy more ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stances. But as evi­dence of the resilience, resource­ful­ness, and cre­ativ­i­ty of human beings—and more specif­i­cal­ly of moth­ers in dire straits—we offer the fol­low­ing: A Curi­ous Herbal, Eliz­a­beth Blackwell’s fine­ly illus­trat­ed, engraved, and col­ored “herbal,” the term for a “book of plants, describ­ing their appear­ance, their prop­er­ties and how they may be used for prepar­ing oint­ments,” the British Library writes.

Born some­time around 1700 to a suc­cess­ful mer­chant fam­i­ly in Scot­land, Eliz­a­beth mar­ried Alexan­der Black­well, a “shady char­ac­ter” who pro­ceed­ed to drag her through a series of mis­ad­ven­tures involv­ing him pos­ing as a doc­tor and a print­er, despite the fact that he’d had no train­ing in either pro­fes­sion.

Black­well incurred sev­er­al hefty fines from the author­i­ties, which he could not pay, and he was final­ly remand­ed to debtor’s prison, an insti­tu­tion that often left women with young chil­dren to fend for them­selves.

“With Alexan­der in prison, Eliz­a­beth was forced to rely on her own resources to keep her­self and her child.” For­tu­nate­ly, she had been pre­pared with life skills dur­ing her pros­per­ous upbring­ing, hav­ing learned a thing or two about busi­ness and “received tuition in draw­ing and paint­ing, as many well-to-do young women then did.” Black­well real­ized a pub­lish­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty: find­ing no high-qual­i­ty herbals avail­able, she decid­ed to make her own in “a rare tri­umph of turn­ing des­per­a­tion into inspi­ra­tion,” Maria Popo­va writes.

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.

The gor­geous book, A Curi­ous Herbal (1737–39), was not all Blackwell’s work, though she com­plet­ed all of the illus­tra­tions from start to fin­ish. She also enlist­ed her husband’s help, vis­it­ing his cell to have him “sup­ply each plant’s name in Latin, Greek, Ital­ian, Span­ish, Dutch, and Ger­man.” Black­well pro­duced 500 illus­tra­tions in total. She adver­tised “by word of mouth,” notes the British Library, “and in sev­er­al jour­nals” and “showed her­self an adept busi­ness­woman, strik­ing mutu­al­ly advan­ta­geous deals with book­sellers that ensured the finan­cial suc­cess of the herbal.”

Black­well not only ben­e­fit­ed her fam­i­ly and her read­ers, but she also gave her book to posterity—though she couldn’t have known it at the time. Her herbal has been dig­i­tized in full by the Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library. The herbal will also give back to the nat­ur­al world she lov­ing­ly ren­dered (includ­ing plants that have since gone extinct). Popo­va has made a selec­tion of the illus­tra­tions avail­able as prints to ben­e­fit The Nature Con­ser­van­cy. See Blackwell’s dig­i­tized book in full here and order prints at Brain Pick­ings.

via Brain­Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Dis­cov­er Emi­ly Dickinson’s Herbar­i­um: A Beau­ti­ful Dig­i­tal Edi­tion of the Poet’s Col­lec­tion of Pressed Plants & Flow­ers Is Now Online

His­toric Man­u­script Filled with Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Cuban Flow­ers & Plants Is Now Online (1826)

The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library Makes 150,000 High-Res Illus­tra­tions of the Nat­ur­al World Free to Down­load

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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