Elizabeth Blackwell created her Curious Herbal to spring her husband from debtors’ prison. And—probably—to support herself and her children in the meantime.
No, this wasn’t the Elizabeth Blackwell who famously became the first woman doctor in the U. S. The artistic one was born over a century sooner, on or near the year 1700, in Aberdeen, Scotland. Daughter of a wealthy merchant, she would have been taught drawing much as upper class young women of that era also were taught needlework. She couldn’t have known how much she was going to need the former skill after she eloped with her second cousin, Alexander Blackwell.
Judging from her later difficulties, it seems likely that her wealthy family disapproved of the marriage and cut her off financially. They probably had good reason to do so, since Alexander apparently was one of those people who jump from one iffy scheme to the next without actually finishing anything.
Accused of practicing medicine without sufficient training, he moved to London and took up printing instead. His fellow printers strongly objected, since he hadn’t bothered with the four-year apprenticeship and guild membership usually required for such undertakings. His business was shut down by the authorities and Alexander himself hauled off to debtors’ prison after he couldn’t pay the fines.
Perhaps due to her familiarity with both the medical and printing trades, Elizabeth decided that the world needed a new illustrated medical herbal to cover all the herbs recently discovered in the Americas—such as tobacco and sassafras—as well as the more traditional European ones. So she took up residence near the Chelsea Physic Garden, to have access to her subjects, and convinced some of the doctors associated with that garden to sponsor her project.
Unlike most illustrators of that time period, she completed all the tasks associated with her printmaking herself: the initial drawings, the engraving of those drawings onto copper plates for printing, and the hand coloring of the finished prints. The completed A Curious Herbal included a grand total of five hundred images separated into two volumes.
Since Alexander identified the plants, supplied the text, and translated the plant names into six languages, he must have been a well-educated and knowledgeable man—just not much of a planner! At any rate, with the income from the book, his wife finally did succeed in getting him released from prison.
After all her work, you would think the long-suffering Elizabeth deserved a happy ending to her story. But Alexander apparently hadn’t learned much from his incarceration and was soon knee-deep in financial trouble again—so much so that the couple gradually had to sell off many of their rights to the herbal.
Alexander relocated to Sweden in 1742, where he practiced as both a doctor and agriculturalist. (He apparently planned to send for his wife eventually, but just never got around to doing so.) As with most of Alexander’s ideas, it was an ill-advised move, since the Swedish king had him beheaded for treason about five years later.
The farmer/physician had taken a disastrous dive into politics, believing that he could help restore good relations between England and Sweden, which had deteriorated after Sweden gave refuge to Jacobites. His attempt to contact the British ambassador in Denmark led to the apparently unfounded accusations of treason against the Swedish king. One source concludes that he probably was framed by a count who was jealous of his popularity in the court.
Alexander apparently didn’t lack for courage and a sense of humor, if the final story about him is true. In it, he apologized for laying his head the wrong way on the executioner’s block, and excused himself on the grounds that this was his first beheading.
In that, we see some of the charm that kept Elizabeth devoted to him. We can only hope she retained enough rights to her herbal to support herself. All of her children apparently died young, but she outlived her husband by about ten years. Although an Elizabeth Blackwell practiced as a midwife at around that time, no one knows for sure whether it was the same Elizabeth.
The artist eventually would have a genus of plants named Blackwellia after her. One species from that genus appears above, while the other plant illustrations are by Elizabeth herself. Although her work wasn't intended to prove what a woman could do, it certainly illustrated that this one possessed both her husband’s vision and the persistence he so sorely lacked.
Images: The Blackwellia padiflora image is by M. Hart from Edward's Botanical Register, courtesy of plantillustrations.org. The other (public domain) images of Elizabeth Blackwell and prints from her A Curious Herbal are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and plantillustrations.org.