The CIA Has Declassified 2,780 Pages of UFO-Related Documents, and They’re Now Free to Download

Everybody knows that UFO stands for “unidentified flying object.” Coined by the United States Air Force in 1953, the term has come to stand for a wide range of phenomena that suggest we’ve been contacted by alien civilizations — and in fact has even spawned the field of ufology, dedicated to the investigation of such phenomena. But times change, and with them the approved terminology. These days the U.S. government seems to prefer the abbreviation UAP, which stands for “unidentified aerial phenomenon.” Those three words may sound more precisely descriptive, but they also provide some distance from the decades of not entirely desirable cultural associations built up around the concept of the UFO.

Yet this is hardly a bad time to be a ufologist. “Buried in the latest federal omnibus spending bill signed into law on December 27, 2020 — notable for its inclusion of coronavirus relief — is a mandate that may bring UFO watchers one step closer to finding out whether the government has been watching the skies,” writes Mental Floss’ Jake Rossen.

That same site’s Ellen Gutoskey followed up with an announcement that the CIA’s entire collection of declassified UFO documents is now available to download. You can do so at The Black Vault, a clearing house for UFO related-information run by ufologist John Greenewald Jr. These documents come to 2,780 pages in total, the release of which necessitated the filing of more than 10,000 Freedom of Information Act reports.

Samir Ferdowsi at Vice’s Motherboard quotes Greenewald describing the process as “like pulling teeth,” with results more impressive in quantity than quality. “The CIA has made it INCREDIBLY difficult to use their records in a reasonable manner,” Greenewals writes. “They offer a format that is very outdated (multi page .tif) and offer text file outputs, largely unusable,” all of which “makes it very difficult for people to see the documents, and use them, for any research purpose.” He’s thus also made available a version of the CIA’s declassified UFO documents converted into 713 PDFs. The Black Vault advises downloaders to bear in mind that “many of these documents are poorly photocopied, so the computer can only ‘see’ so much to convert for searching.”

But even with these difficulties, UFO enthusiasts have already turned up material of interest: “From a dispute with a Bosnian fugitive with alleged E.T. contact to mysterious midnight explosions in a small Russian town, the reports definitely take readers for a wild ride,” writes Ferdowsi. “One of the most interesting documents in the drop, Greenewald said, involved the Assistant Deputy Director for Science & Technology being hand-delivered some piece of information on a UFO in the 1970s.” This document, like most of the others, comes with many parts blacked out, but as Greenewald recently tweeted, “I have an open ‘Mandatory Declassification Review’ request to HOPEFULLY get some of these redactions lifted, so we can see what was hand delivered, and what his advice may be.” Ufology demands a great deal of curiosity, but an even greater deal of patience. Enter the Black Vault here.

Related Content:

The CIA Puts Hundreds of Declassified Documents About UFO Sightings Online, Plus 10 Tips for Investigating Flying Saucers

12 Million Declassified CIA Documents Now Free Online: Secret Tunnels, UFOs, Psychic Experiments & More

What Do Aliens Look Like? Oxford Astrobiologists Draw a Picture, Based on Darwinian Theories of Evolution

The Appeal of UFO Narratives: Investigative Journalist Paul Beban Visits Pretty Much Pop #14

Richard Feynman: The Likelihood of Flying Saucers

Carl Jung’s Fascinating 1957 Letter on UFOs

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Behold an Interactive Online Edition of Elizabeth Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants (1868)

Of all the varied objects of creation there is, probably, no portion that affords so much gratification and delight to mankind as plants. —Elizabeth Twining

“Who owned nature in the eighteenth century?” asks Londa Schiebinger in Plants and Empire, a study of what the Stanford historian of science calls “colonial bioprospecting in the Atlantic World.” The question was largely decided at the time by “heroic voyaging botanists” and “biopirates” who claimed the world’s natural resources as their own. The matter was settled in the next couple centuries by merchants like Thomas Twining and his descendants, proprietors of Twinings tea. Founded as Britain’s first known tea shop in 1706, the company went on to become one of the largest purveyors of teas grown in the British colonies.

One of Twining’s descendants, Elizabeth Twining, carried on the legacy as what Schiebinger calls one of many “armchair naturalists, who coordinated and synthesized collecting from sinecures in Europe,” a role often taken on by women who could not travel the world. Twining aimed, however, not to create taxonomies of the world’s plants but those of her own country in a comparative analysis.

Her 1868 Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants, she wrote in her introduction, was “the first work which has thus done due honour to our British plants by connecting with others, and placing them whenever possible at the head of the Order to be illustrated.”

Twining’s revaluation of local British plants was in keeping with the reformist spirit of the age, and she herself was such a reformer. “Apart from her artistic endeavors,” writes Nicholas Rougeaux, Twining “was a notable philanthropist,” establishing almshouses and temperance halls, founding “mother’s meetings” in London, and helping to found the Bedford College for Women. She was inspired by Curtis’s The Botanical Magazine and “she practiced by making sketches from works in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and toured famous museums thanks to her father’s patronage.”

Twining authored and illustrated several botanical books, “most notably,” Rougeux writes, “the two volume Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants, which included a total of 160 hand-colored lithographs, royal folio, reportedly based on observation at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew and at Lexden Park in Colchester.” Rougeux has done for her work what the designer previously did for other illustrated classics of science and math (see the related links below): digitizing the illustrations and transliterating the text into a digital format, with hyperlinks and sharing features.

Rougeux’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants offers itself as “a complete reproduction and restoration… enhanced with interactive illustrations, descriptions, and posters featuring the illustrations.” The first two volumes of the original book were published in 1849 and 1855. Rougeux’s online version of the text is based on the 1868 second edition “with re-drawn illustrations based on her originals.” (See pages from the text above and below.) Rougeux’s digitized text is thus two steps removed from Twining’s original illustrations, but we can see the care and attention she put into classifying the flora of her native country.

“Twining chose to illustrate plants using the classification system created by Augustin-Pyrame de Candolle based on multiple characteristics of plants—rather than the more widely used system by Carl Linnaeus which was focused on plants’ reproductive characteristics,” notes Rougeux, “because the De Candolle system was newer and she wanted her readers to be up to date as classification systems were evolving.”

Although biological taxonomies have changed considerably since her time, Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants remains an intriguing “snapshot in time” that depicts not only the latest ideas about plant classification in the mid-19th century but also the attitudes a prominent member of the British ruling class adopted toward nature as a whole. See Rougeux’s online edition of Twining’s text here.

via Kottke

Related Content:

Explore an Interactive, Online Version of the Beautifully Illustrated, 200-Year-Old British & Exotic Mineralogy

A Beautifully-Designed Edition of Euclid’s Elements from 1847 Gets Digitized: Explore the New Online, Interactive Reproduction

Explore an Interactive, Online Version of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, a 200-Year-Old Guide to the Colors of the Natural World

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

The Golden Guide to Hallucinogenic Plants: Discover the 1977 Illustrated Guide Created by Harvard’s Groundbreaking Ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes

I mean, the idea that you would give a psychedelic—in this case, magic mushrooms or the chemical called psilocybin that’s derived from magic mushrooms—to people dying of cancer, people with terminal diagnoses, to help them deal with their – what’s called existential distress. And this seemed like such a crazy idea that I began looking into it. Why should a drug from a mushroom help people deal with their mortality?

–Michael Pollan in an interview with Terry Gross, “’Reluctant Psychonaut’ Michael Pollan Embraces ‘New Science’ Of Psychedelics”

Around the same time Albert Hoffman synthesized LSD in the early 1940s, a pioneering ethnobotanist, writer, and photographer named Richard Evan Schultes set out “on a mission to study how indigenous peoples” in the Amazon rainforest “used plants for medicinal, ritual and practical purposes,” as an extensive history of Schultes’ travels notes. “He went on to spend over a decade immersed in near-continuous fieldwork, collecting more than 24,000 species of plants including some 300 species new to science.”

Described by Jonathan Kandell as “swashbuckling” in a 2001 New York Times obituary, Schultes was “the last of the great plant explorers in the Victorian tradition.” Or so his student Wade Davis called him in his 1995 bestseller The Serpent and the Rainbow. He was also “a pioneering conservationist,” writes Kandell, “who raised alarms in the 1960’s—long before environmentalism became a worldwide concern.” Schultes defied the stereotype of the colonial adventurer, once saying, “I do not believe in hostile Indians. All that is required to bring out their gentlemanliness is reciprocal gentlemanliness.”

Schultes returned to teach at Harvard, where he reminded his students “that more than 90 tribes had become extinct in Brazil alone over the first three-quarters of the 20th century.” While his research would have significant influence on figures like Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, and Carlos Castaneda, “writers who considered hallucinogens as the gateways to self-discovery,” Schultes was dismissive of the counterculture and “disdained these self-appointed prophets of an inner reality.”

Rather than promoting recreational use, Schultes became known as “the father of a new branch of science called ‘ethnobotany,’ the field that explores the relationship between indigenous people and their use of plants,” writes Luis Sequeira in a biographical note. One of Schultes’ publications, the Golden Guide to Hallucinogenic Plants, has sadly fallen out of print, but you can find it online, in full, at the Vaults of Erowid. Pricey out-of-print copies can still be purchased.

Described on Amazon as “a nontechnical examination of the physiological effects and cultural significance of hallucinogenic plants used in ancient and modern societies,” the book covers peyote, ayahuasca, cannabis, various psychoactive mushrooms and other fungi, and much more. In his introduction, Schultes is careful to separate his research from its appropriation, dismissing the term “psychedelic” as etymologically incorrect and “biologically unsound.” Furthermore, he writes, it “has acquired popular meanings beyond the drugs or their effects.”

Schultes’ interests are scientificand anthropological. “In the history of mankind,” he writes, “hallucinogens have probably been the most important of all the narcotics. Their fantastic effects made them sacred to primitive man and may even have been responsible for suggesting to him the idea of deity.” He does not exaggerate. Schultes’ research into the religious and medicinal uses of natural hallucinogens led him to dub them “plants of the gods” in a book he wrote with Albert Hoffman, discoverer of LSD.

Neither scientist sought to start a psychedelic revolution, but it happened nonetheless. Now, another revolution is underwayone that is finally revisiting the science of ethnobotany and taking seriously the healing powers of hallucinogenic plants. It is hardly a new science among scholars in the West, but the renewed legitimacy of research into hallucinogens has given Schultes’ research new authority. Learn from him in his Golden Guide to Hallucinogenic Plants online here.

Related Content: 

How to Use Psychedelic Drugs to Improve Mental Health: Michael Pollan’s New Book, How to Change Your Mind, Makes the Case

New LSD Research Provides the First Images of the Brain on Acid, and Hints at Its Potential to Promote Creativity

Artist Draws 9 Portraits While on LSD: Inside the 1950s Experiments to Turn LSD into a “Creativity Pill”

Hofmann’s Potion: 2002 Documentary Revisits the History of LSD

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

When Albert Einstein & Charlie Chaplin Met and Became Fast Famous Friends (1930)

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother,” goes a well-known quote attributed variously to Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Ernest Rutherford. No matter who said it, “the sentiment… rings true,” writes Michelle Lavery, “for researchers in all disciplines from particle physics to ecopsychology.” As Feynman discovered during his many years of teaching, it could be “the motto of all professional communicators,” The Guardian’s Russell Grossman writes, “and especially those who earn a living communicating the tricky business of science.”

Einstein became one of the world’s great science communicators by choice, not necessity, and found ways to explain his complex theories to children and the elderly alike. But perhaps, if he’d had his way, he would rather have avoided words altogether, and preferred acrobatic feats of silent daring to get his message across. We might at least conclude so from his reverence for the work of Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was the only person Einstein wanted to meet in California during his second, 1930-31 visit to the U.S., when he was “at the height of his fame,” notes Claire Cock-Starkey at Mental Floss, “with newspapers tracking his every move and academics clamoring for explanations of his theories.”

The admiration, of course, was mutual. Their first meetings happened outside the press’s scrutiny, at Universal Studios, “where the pair took a tour and had lunch together. They hit it off straight away, sharing quick wits and curious minds.” In his autobiography, Chaplin writes that Einstein’s wife Elsa finagled an invitation to dinner at Chaplin’s house. And he “was only too happy to oblige,” Cock-Starkey writes, arranging an “intimate dinner, at which Elsa regaled him with the story of when Einstein came up with his world-changing theory, sometime around 1915.”

The two continued to correspond, and the big public unveiling of their friendship came when Chaplin invited Einstein to the premier of City Lights in 1931 (see photo up top) where the mega-celebrities from very different worlds were greeted by reporters, photographers, and adoring crowds. There are several recorded versions of their conversation. In one account, Einstein expressed bemusement at the cheering, and Chaplin remarked, “the people applaud me because everyone understands me, and they applaud you because no one understands you.”

Chaplin himself wrote in his 1933-34 travelogue, A Comedian Sees the World, that one of Einstein’s sons uttered the line, weeks afterward: “You are popular [because] you are understood by the masses. On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.” Yet another version, circulating on the Nobel Prize’s Instagram and collecting tens of thousands of likes, has the exchange take place in a dialogue.

Einstein: “What I most admire about your art, is your universality. You don’t say a word, yet the world understands you!”

Chaplin: “True. But your glory is even greater! The whole world admires you, even though they don’t understand a word of what you say.”

Whatever they really said to each other, it’s clear Einstein saw something in Charlie Chaplin worth emulating. Chaplin left his mark on Existentialist philosophy, lending the name of his film Modern Times to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s influential journal, Les Temps Modernes. He left a legacy on Beat poetry, lending the name City Lights to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s infamous San Francisco bookstore and publisher. And it seems he also maybe had some small effect on physics, or on the most famous of physicists, who might have harbored a secret ambition to be a silent film comedian—or to communicate, at least, with the universal effectiveness of one as skilled as Charlie Chaplin, favorite of geniuses and grandmothers (and genius grandmothers) everywhere.

Related Content:  

60+ Free Charlie Chaplin Films Online

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Explained in One of the Earliest Science Films Ever Made (1923)

Hear Albert Einstein Read “The Common Language of Science” (1941)

The Charlie Chaplin Archive Opens, Putting Online 30,000 Photos & Documents from the Life of the Iconic Film Star

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

How Do Vaccines (Including the COVID-19 Vaccines) Work?: Watch Animated Introductions

The other day, I found myself reading about what life is like in countries that have successfully minimized the pandemic: worry free holidays, meeting friends and family without the danger of infection, a general air of normalcy thanks to a combination of rigorous public health efforts and public cooperation. I live in the U.S., where the political party currently in power (and desperate to keep it) convinced millions of my fellow citizens that the virus was a hoax, a scam, a political ploy. The reality of a virus-free existence seems like a fairy tale.

But perhaps, after a year of death, suffering, and lunacy, we will begin to see the tide turn once enough people get vaccinated…  if we can overcome the massive wave of anti-science bias and disinformation about vaccines…. “The anti-vaccination movement is going to make Covid-19 more difficult to get under control,” says Scott Ratzan, distinguished lecturer at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.

Long before the vaccine arrived, Katherine O’Brien, a director at WHO, noted there was already a prominent “anti-vaccination voice” on social media. “We have to take this seriously,” she told The BMJ. “Vaccination isn’t just an individual choice; it protects those who can’t be vaccinated.” We’ve seen the term “herd immunity”  misused a lot lately. What it essentially means is that a small number of people can be shielded from the virus if the vast majority get vaccinated. Or as WHO puts it, “herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it.”

All of this means there will likely never be a more critical moment to educate ourselves and others on the science of vaccines. We may not sway those faithful to a certain narrative, but it can help shift the conversation from fears of the unknown to the long history of the known when it comes to eradicating highly infectious, deadly diseases. A great way to start is with the basics, which you’ll find in the videos above from TED-Ed, Mechanisms of Medicine, and PBS. Watch them yourself, share them on social media, and keep the conversation about vaccines’ efficacy going.

In the TED-Ed lesson just above, we learn some more specific information about the key phases of developing a new vaccine: exploratory research, clinical testing, and manufacturing. You’ll find much more detailed information on the history of vaccines, spurious anti-vaccination claims, and the coronavirus vaccines now on the market and currently shipping around the world, at the award-winning site, The History of Vaccines, from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

The COVID-19 vaccine is a special kind of vaccine (mRNA) that works differently from most, and you can learn about how it works here. A quick primer on herd immunity appears at the bottom.

Related Content: 

What Does the United States’ Coronavirus Response Look Like Abroad?: Watch the Rest of the World Stare Aghast at Our Handling of COVID-19

Interactive Web Site Tracks the Global Spread of the Coronavirus: Created and Supported by Johns Hopkins

19th Century Maps Visualize Measles in America Before the Miracle of Vaccines

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

The Map of Doom: A Data-Driven Visualization of the Biggest Threats to Humanity, Ranked from Likely to Unlikely

Surely you’ve learned, as I have, to filter out the constant threats of doom. It’s impossible to function on high alert all of the time. But one must stay at least minimally informed. To check the news even once a day is to encounter headline after headline announcing DOOM IS COMING! Say that we’re all desensitized, and rather than react, we evaluate: In what way will doom arrive? How bad will the doom be? There are many competing theories of doom. Which one is most likely, and how can we understand them in relation to each other?

For this level of analysis, we might turn to Dominic Walliman, physicist and proprietor of Domain of Science, the YouTube channel and website that has brought us entertaining and comprehensive maps of several scientific fields, such as biology, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and quantum physics. Is ranking apocalypses a scientific field of study, you might wonder? Yes, when it is a data-driven threat assessment. Walliman surveyed and analyzed, as he says in his introduction, “all of the different threats to humanity that exist.”

When the pandemic hit last winter, “we as a society were completely unprepared for it,” despite the fact that experts had been warning us for decades that exactly such a threat was high on the scale of likelihood. Are we focusing on the wrong kinds of doom, to the exclusion of more pressing threats? Instead of panicking when the coronavirus hit, Walliman cooly wondered what else might be lurking around the corner. “Crikey,” says the New Zealander upon the first reveal of his Map of Doom, “there’s quite a lot aren’t there?”

Not content to just collect disasters (and draw them as if they were all happening at the same time), Walliman also wanted to find out which ones pose the biggest threat, “using some real data.” After the Map of Doom comes the Chart of Doom, an XY grid plotting the likelihood and severity of various crises. These include ancient stalwarts like super volcanoes; far more recent threats like nuclear war and catastrophic climate change; cosmic threats like asteroids and collapsing stars; terrestrial threats like widespread societal collapse and extra-terrestrial threats like hostile aliens….

At the top of the graph, at the limit of “high likelihood,” there lies the “already happening zone,” including, of course, COVID-19, climate change, and volatile extreme weather events like hurricanes and tsunamis. At the bottom, in the “impossible to calculate” zone, we find sci-fi events like rogue AI, rogue black holes, rogue nano-bots, hostile aliens, and the collapse of the vacuum of space. All theoretically possible, but in Walliman’s analysis mostly unlikely to occur. As in all of his maps, he cites his sources on the video’s YouTube page.

If you’re not feeling quite up to a data presentation on mass casualty events just now, you can download the Map and Chart of Doom here and peruse them at your leisure. Pick up a Map of Doom for the wall at Walliman’s site, and while you’re there, why not buy an “I survived 2020” sticker. Maybe it’s premature, and maybe in poor taste. And maybe in times of doom we need someone to face the facts of doom squarely, turn them into cartoon infographics of doom, and claim victories like living through another calendar year.

Related Content: 

Infographics Show How the Different Fields of Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics & Computer Science Fit Together

M.I.T. Computer Program Alarmingly Predicts in 1973 That Civilization Will End by 2040

In 1704, Isaac Newton Predicts the World Will End in 2060

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

Why Humans Are Obsessed with Cats

A house cat is not really a fur baby, but it is something rather more remarkable: a tiny conquistador with the whole planet at its feet —Abigail Tucker

As part of its Annals of Obsession video series, The New Yorker invited science journalist Abigail Tucker, author of The Lion in the Living Room, to reflect on “how felines took over the Internet, our homes, and our lives.”

It goes without saying that cats and humans have co-existed for a very long time.

Most of us are acquainted with the high regard in which Ancient Egyptians held Felis catus.

And we may know something of their seafaring history, beginning with the Vikings and continuing on through Unsinkable Sam and other celebrated ship’s cats.

An overwhelming majority of us have spent the last decade or so glued to online examples of their antics—riding robot vacuumsreacting with terror to cucumbers, and pouncing on humans, some of whom have had the temerity to write and record voiceovers that suggest they have insight as to what goes on inside a cat’s hat. (As if!)

It’s gratifying to hear Tucker echo what cat lovers have long suspected (and emblazoned on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and decorative pillows)—the cats, not the owners, are the ones running the show.

Forgive us. Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.

Cats took a commensal path to domestication, motivated, then as now, by the food they knew to be stored in our settlements.

Tucker describes it as a series of cat controlled takeovers—a process of artificial selection, undertaken on the cats’ own initiative:

House cats are supremely adaptable. They can live anywhere and, while they must have plenty of protein, they eat practically anything that moves, from pelicans to crickets, and many things that don’t, like hot dogs. (Some of their imperiled feline relatives, by contrast, are adapted to hunt only a rare species of chinchilla.) House cats can tweak their sleeping schedules and social lives. They can breed like crazy.

In certain ways the house cat’s rise is tragic, for the same forces that favor them have destroyed many other creatures. House cats are carpetbaggers, arrivistes, and they’re among the most transformative invaders the world has ever seen—except for Homo sapiens, of course. It’s no coincidence that when they show up in ecosystems, lions and other megafauna are usually on their way out.

Aloof as many of their number may be, cats have engineered things in such a way as to be physically irresistible to most humans:

Their big heads and big eyes are so cute!

Their fur is so soft!

We can carry them around!

Dress them in doll clothes (sometimes)!

Their cries mimic the cries of hungry human babies, and elicit a similar response from their human caregivers.

We may not love litter box duty, but with 1 in 3 humans infected by Toxoplasma gondii, we’ll likely be tethered to them for all eternity.

For better or worse, we love them. And so do dog lovers. They just don’t know it yet.

But do not ever imagine that the feeling is reciprocal.

They’re archcarnivores who cannot open their own cans. As Tucker wryly observes:

I think it’s fair to say that we are obsessed and they are not.

Related Content: 

An Animated History of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Predator to Sofa Sidekick

GPS Tracking Reveals the Secret Lives of Outdoor Cats

In 1183, a Chinese Poet Describes Being Domesticated by His Own Cats

How Humans Domesticated Cats (Twice)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She loves cats, but most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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

More in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.