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Elizabeth Blackwell (1700 - 1758) - A Curious Herbal

January 3 2008 at 8:14 PM

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For those of you who love looking at old herbals and herb illustrations (like me ) I thought I'd share the following information. I just came across a site that has a free download of Elizabeth Blackwells book 'A Curious Herbal' Volume 1 (Plates 1 - 252) and Volume 2 (Plates 253 - 500)

The book is part of the Rare books collection and what copies remain are in places like the British Library, although sadly we don't get to turn the pages of those books. This virtual book although the images are not top quality is still worth browsing. I've seen art prints on some internet sites for almost £30 each and that's just for 1 of the pictures!!!

There is an interesting story behind this herbal, and I thought I'd share it for those that don't know anything about Elizabeth Blackwell. She was born in c.1700 to a wealthy family in Aberdeen. In 1728 she married her second cousin Alexander and moved to London with him. Alexander, using Elizabeth's dowry, established a printing business at the Atlas, opposite Catherine Street in the Strand. However, the business foundered and Alexander was imprisoned for debt. A curious herbal was conceived by Elizabeth as a way of extricating her husband from prison. She realised there was a need for a work containing lifelike reproductions of medicinal plants and details of their medicinal uses. Encouragement came from Sir Hans Sloane, Richard Mead and apothecary Isaac Rand, director of the botanical garden at Chelsea.

Elizabeth drew the plants from life at the botanical garden at Chelsea. She also engraved the copper plates herself and coloured the prints of the first edition by hand. Alexander assisted with the text. Initially published in weekly parts, the first volume, which contained commendations from the Royal College of Physicians, was completed in 1737, the second in 1738 or early 1739. Although the drawings of the plants are considered by some to be a little stiff in execution, they are attractive and the book enjoyed considerable success on publication. The bonus being that nough money was raised from sales of the herbal to get Alexander released from prison.

If you want to know more about Elizabeth Blackwell there is an excellent pdf file entitled Elizabeth Blackwell - The Forgotten Herbalist which goes into greater detail about the woman and her life.


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