An 18th-Century Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants Honors the Groundbreaking Artist Elizabeth Blackwell

  • Aug 11.

Quince. All images courtesy of Abbeville Press, shared with permission

Slices of quince revealing tiny seed pockets, serrated dandelion leaves cradling spindly stems, and juicy elderberries growing in dense clusters are a few of the specimens that intrigued Elizabeth Blackwell (1699–c. 1758). An always passionate artist living during a time that saw a burgeoning interest in the natural world, Blackwell illustrated a thick, detailed compendium of approximately 500 plants and their properties to aid doctors and medical professionals in treatment.

Titled A Curious Herbal: Elizabeth Blackwell’s Pioneering Masterpiece of Botanical Art, the book today is hailed for both its exquisitely detailed renderings and the fact that it’s the first of its kind created by a woman. Abbeville Press released the first modern edition earlier this year, finally granting Blackwell long-deserved recognition and offering today’s readers a chance to peek inside the vivid, botanical encyclopedia.

Artistically talented and ambitious, Blackwell first got the idea for A Curious Herbal when she needed to make money after her husband was jailed in a debtor’s prison. The project was all-encompassing, with the artist not only researching, drawing, hand-coloring the printing plates, and writing the descriptions for each specimen but also selling the book herself.

In addition to undertaking such a herculean amount of work, Blackwell was doing so at a time when women were largely barred from scientific institutions and medical professions. Given its commercial success, A Curious Herbal was not only a creative feat but also a social one, emphasizing the value of women’s knowledge and artistic output particularly as it related to male-dominated fields.

A Curious Herbal is available now on Bookshop. (via Hyperallergic)

 

Dandelion

Love apple, a.k.a. tomato

Cacao

Left: Garden radish. Right: Elecampane

Elder

Creeping birthwort

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