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

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History Illustration Science

#books #medicine #plants

A botanical illustration of a yellow fruit growing from green and white leaves with a pink flower

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)

A botanical illustration of yellow flowers and a white puff of dried seeds growing from serrated leaves with a long, carrot-like root


A botanical illustration of red and green tomatoes growing from a leafy plant with yellow flowers

Love apple, a.k.a. tomato

A botanical illustration of a leafy green plant with large brown seed pods


Two botanical illustrations, on the left is a leafy plant with pink leaves and a pink root, on the right is a green plant with large leaves and a sparse yellow petaled flower with large brown root

Left: Garden radish. Right: Elecampane

A botanical illustration of a leafy plant with deep purple berries


A botanical illustration of a green leafy plant with small yellow flowers and a brown root

Creeping birthwort

a book cover with pink plant that reads A curious herbal

#books #medicine #plants

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