Monday, November 29, 2010

Elizabeth Blackwell, Botanical Illustrator

The eighteenth century proved to be the time for budding female botanists. Women were allowed to pursue the study of plants and encouraged in illustration, but any deeper interest such as, a professional career, in the actual science of the field was discouraged. It seems a natural evolution that women who have always been involved in herbal preparations for the sick in their homes would develop such an interest. Those who came from a wealthy family with an education would be the ones to push the boundaries. Elizabeth Blackwell would be one of those women. She was of a later time than Maria Sibylla Marian and more than likely knew of her work.
Elizabeth Blachrie was born into a wealthy merchant family (1707–1758) in Aberdeen, Scotland. She trained as an artist and also studied music and languages. She fell in love with her cousin Alexander Blackwell, a medical practitioner. They eloped, and moved to London. In London, Alexander started out as a proof reader in a printing house, but opened his own printing house in the Strand in 1730. He met opposition from other rival printers. Alexander was charged with not having served an appropriate apprenticeship and sent to prison. 

Elizabeth was now destitute. She had one child to care for, with no income, and in debt from Alexander’s lavish spending and from the court fines. However Elizabeth was quite a resourceful woman. Realizing that there was no up to date reference book for apothecaries on the newly discovered plants from the new world (North and South America), she set out to fill the gap. While Elizabeth held an interest in botany, and could draw very well, she knew that she would need assistance in writing the book. Elizabeth enlisted the help of her husband (while still in prison) for his medical knowledge of plants. She also found the support of the Worshipfull Society of Apothecaries and other leading doctors. She befriended Isaac Rand, curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden (a teaching garden established in 1673) and took rooms in Swan Walk next to the gardens to be able to draw and paint the plants from the new world. 

Her book ‘A Curious Herbal, containing five hundred cuts of the most useful plants which are now used in the Practise of Physick, to which is added a short description of ye plants and their common uses in Physick’ was published in several volumes between 1737 and 1739. Elizabeth engraved her own images on copper plates and then hand-coloured the prints herself. The book was a financial success, which allowed the release of Alexander from jail and freed Elizabeth of all debts.
Unfortunately Alexander could not keep himself out of trouble. He  eventually was retained as physician for King Frederick of Sweden., but was soon accused of quackery.  Alexander next published an essay on agriculture and was put in charge of a farm which he mismanaged and again found himself in a delicate position with King Frederick. He was later alleged to have been involved in a plot to dethrone the king, and was sentenced to death in 1747.
Between 1747 and 1773 “A Curious Herbal” was later enlarged and improved by Christoph Jacob Trew, and was published in both English and Latin. It was entitled Herbarium Blackwellium in five volumes, the sixth volume titled Herbarii Blackwelliani auctarium.

Little is known of Elizabeth’s later life. She had three children, all of whom died young. It is said she took up midwifery. She was a devoted wife to her husband, working hard to free him from jail and clear all their debts. She shared loyalties with him from her book and also gave up the copyright of her book to pay his debts. Elizabeth never gained the popularity like others of her time, and has been overlooked by history, however she made great contributions to the science of botany and left behind detailed botanical illustrations.
 Elizabeth Blackwell’s herbal was reprinted once in the 20th century and, in the 1920s.

*Elizabeth should not be confused with another Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first woman to be openly recognized as a physician in the USA.


  1. Dear Patty, This is a fascinating account of a woman who really did lead the way in her time. Her illustrations are remarkable and although I knew of her work in writing the 'herbal' I knew little of her life in general. I have much enjoyed finding out more about her.

  2. Thank you Edith. I imagine she had to be quite strong to deal with everything she had to regarding the husband.

  3. I have never heard of Elizabeth or have seen her illustration. The one you showed is remarkably good. I enjoyed the historical account of this woman and her dedication to botany.It is a shame she was not given due credit.

  4. Greetings from Italy!
    I enjoy your blog about Women & Gardens and will follow your posts in future. Here in Italy the new thinking on gardens is mostly coming from female gardeners ... as I suspect it is in many countries.

  5. Boy did Elizabeth have bad taste in men, sounds like anyway. So talented though, taking up midwifery after three children died is probably what God recognizes the most out of her abundance of talents. interesting post, take care, Gina

  6. GW- Elizabeth's illustrations are not as good as M.S. Merian IMHO, but the reason to write the herbal was to get her husband out of prison.

    Yvonne - Thank you for your comment. I suspect the tide is slowly turning here although the trade of landscape architect seems to still be male dominated.

    Gina- Nice to see you here. Yes she certainly picked an unscrupulous sort.

  7. Very well-researched and engaging biography! I had heard of Elizabeth Blackwell but now I feel a little bit like I knew her. I absolutely love old engravings of plants, too!

  8. What a had life she had. We forget in this day and age how in the past a woman's fortune was so closely tied to that of her husband. How hard it must have been to have your well being resting so completely in the hands of another.

  9. Patty, I so enjoyed reading this post and learning about the talent and plight of Elizabeth Blackwell. What a tragic life she led, yet through it all was able to create such beauty . . . equal to that of Maria Sibylla Marian.

  10. Jennifer - Hard in many ways I agree. I just checked her age, she died at 51. Not a long life either.

    Carol - I can't imagine how it would be like to have a brief moment where you are renowned in some fields, and have it all quickly snatched away forever.

  11. Hi Patty, Very cool site. We just posted a link to it on our Master Gardeners of Niagara facebook page. Cheers

  12. Earthbound - That is very kind of you. I was able to look at your home page and saw the link, but am unable to thank your group since I do not have Facebook. I hope you will see my thanks here. - Patty

  13. Hi Patty, Since I have a passion for history I enjoy reading all your posts immensely. Thank you for visiting my blog so I can follow you back. Keep up the good work.

  14. This is a drama of the kind a film could be made of!

    And just imagine being able to show loyalty to such an annoying husband!


  15. Malay-Kadazan - Now you have seen both my blogs, thank you. I will be visiting you later today.

    Esther - How right you are about the drama. She must have really loved the guy...

  16. i have what i am told two original illustrations of mrs blackwell.

    my great grandfather was caretaker of the pratt house in ojai california, designed by greene and greene, he acquired these illustrations from the owners of the pratt house, mr pratt then president of standard oil

    do you know of a dealer whom i may contact?

    thank you


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