In the mid-1730s, Elizabeth Blackwell did something that no one like her had ever done. Over the course of two years, she became the first British woman to produce a fully illustrated herbal — a kind of encyclopedic botanical reference guide — for commercial sale. The book was meant to aid scientists and doctors in developing and administering treatments for diseases through the use of plant-based therapies. Humans have long relied on plants for medical help, but previous herbals often featured limited or confusing images. By contrast, Blackwell’s specimens were observed from life in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden and rendered in large, detailed, hand-colored engravings. From local St. John’s Wort to the “curious love-apple” (tomato), Blackwell’s herbal features 500 plants from across the globe.
Beyond its astonishing scope, the book also had serious scientific value. It predated and perhaps informed early modern works like Species Plantarum (1753) by Carolus Linnaeus, who we know was aware of Blackwell’s work. And more than 50 years after Blackwell’s herbal was published, the English physician and naturalist Richard Pulteney wrote, “It is a singular fact, that physic [medicine] is indebted for the most complete set of figures of the medicinal plants, to the genius and industry of a lady.” Despite its importance, Blackwell’s book is little known today.
A Curious Herbal: Elizabeth Blackwell’s Pioneering Masterpiece of Botanical Art, published this year by Abbeville Press, is the first modern edition of the pivotal work. The book reproduces Blackwell’s original illustrations in lush color, as well as her fascinating notes on each plant’s botanical and medicinal properties, which straddle ancient and more recent understandings of illness and the body. An essay by horticulturist Marta McDowell sheds light on Blackwell’s working method, while historian Janet Stiles Tyson offers new insights into the author’s misunderstood life, which has long been overshadowed by the antics and scandals of her husband. A Curious Herbal resurrects Blackwell’s determined vision, fills crucial gaps in her biography, and grants her the recognition that she has long deserved, but not yet received.
Blackwell’s herbal is notable not just for its impressive scale, but also for its context. At the time, access to scientific associations, professional training, and advanced education was largely off-limits to women in Britain. In an introduction to her work, Blackwell modestly calls the herbal “an undertaking that seems so much out of my Province.” In fact, she handled nearly every aspect of the project, including making preparatory drawings, preparing printing plates, writing descriptions, and even managing sales and accounting. Blackwell did all of this while supporting her family — her husband was jailed in a debtor’s prison at the time — and while giving birth to two children, though neither survived infancy.
In all, the book is a captivating look at a moment when science, medicine, and — at least in the case of Blackwell — gender dynamics were drastically shifting in Britain. It’s a valuable reminder that more historical heroines are waiting to be rediscovered; we just need to look closely.
A Curious Herbal: Elizabeth Blackwell’s Pioneering Masterpiece of Botanical Art by Elizabeth Blackwell (2023) is published by Abbeville Press and is available online and in bookstores.