Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Elizabeth Blackwell's Tragic Tale & Her Free Online Herbal Book

(Note: This post is part of our "herbal series".)

Hers was a tragic tale... A genteel woman with an empty purse, a baby to raise and a husband in old England's debtor prison. "A Curious Herbal" had a curious beginning indeed.

One of the first herbals published by an English woman, Elizabeth Blackwell (not to be confused with the first woman doctor) created it in order to collect enough funds to free her husband from debtor's prison in the early 1700's. Alexander Blackwell was a lavish spender and reckless businessman. He was described as being a "...self-styled Dr. [and] handsome rascal…" by Emily Read Cheston in an article printed in the Herbarist in 1942.

With only her artistic skills to recommend herself and her husband's medical background, she sought to publish an herbal which would introduce plants from the New World (a much needed reference at the time). Taking lodging by a nearby botanical garden, she had access to species which where represented from all over the world, including the new varieties from the Americas. Her plan was to illustrate them and consult her husband (in prison) for their characteristics and medicinal value. He would also give the proper Latin, Greek, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and German names for each plant. She undertook this project with zero background in botany.

Who was Elizabeth Blackwell? 

There are two conflicting accounts according to Richard Garne from the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900:

"BLACKWELL, ELIZABETH (fl. 1737), wife of Alexander Blackwell [q. v.], is positively asserted by James Bruce (Lives of Eminent Men of Aberdeen, p. 307) to have been the daughter of a stocking merchant in Aberdeen, and to have eloped with her husband to London before he found employment as a corrector of the press. No authority is given for these statements. Blackwell's biographer in the 'Bath Journal,' who seems to write with a knowledge of the family, asserts on the other hand that the marriage took place subsequently, and describes Elizabeth as ' a virtuous gentlewoman, the daughter of a worthy merchant,' who gave his daughter a handsome portion. ' Virtuous ' and ' worthy ' were unquestionably epithets applicable to Elizabeth herself, who extricated her husband from his pecuniary difficulties by applying her talent for painting to the delineation of medicinal plants with the colours of nature."

She would eventually draw, engrave and color over 500 illustrations in a two year span. In 1739, two volumes were printed which was quite an accomplishment. As it turned out, "A Curious Herbal" was somewhat successful and Elizabeth was able to use the funds to free her husband.  Her work was republished many times over the next two centuries and was used as a viable resource for apothecaries and physicians of the time.

Unfortunately, her beloved did not reform his ways and thus this tale has a tragic ending.

Alexander Blackwell led his family back into monetary troubles and scandal. Upon his release, he fled to Sweden (without his devoted wife) and after various events, his shady ways brought him to the "block" in a said consperacy against the Crown Prince! According to the Wikipedia account, 

"he was tried and sentenced to be decapitated. He remained in good spirits to the last - at the block, having laid his head wrong, he remarked that since it was his first beheading, he lacked experience and needed instruction. On 9 August 1747 he was executed as Elizabeth was leaving London to join him."

She was a determined woman who remained loyal to her husband all the days of her life, sharing her royalties with him until the bitter end.

Here is the link to the original volume which showcases her beautiful illustrations and herbal information. You may get inspired to create something similar for the plants found in your back yard once spring makes her entrance! Her pictures would be helpful for identification. And though her story was sorrowful, you may also be inspired by the devotion found in this resourceful woman of yesteryear.

Herbal Note: You will notice that each plant presented in an authentic herbal (see insert above from "A Curious Herbal") features information about its characteristics such as height, color of leaves and flowers, where it is found and during which time of year. It also shares the medicinal purpose of the plant and potential forms of preparation such as syrups, simple waters and tinctures, to name a few. To make your own modern day herbal, visit here.

This post may be shared with some or all of the following link-ups: Modest Mom Monday'sHomestead Barn HopTeach Me TuesdayRaising HomemakersMake Bake CreateWise Woman Link UpChristian Homemaking, Welcome Home WednesdayWildcrafting WednesdayFrugal Days, Sustainable WaysHomemaking WednesdaysHomemaking ThursdaysFrom the Farm Blog HopFarmgirl Friday, and Clever Chicks Blog Hop. Thank you lovely ladies for hosting these. Information for this article was gleaned from the following web-sources: source onesource two and source three.


  1. Very interesting post, JES! Elizabeth Blackwell was an admirable lady indeed. What a resourceful woman she was to have plunged into such a project without the knowledge needed for sure success. Yet, she pulled it off by drawing on her husband's knowledge and coupling it with her own artistic talent. This story is truly inspiring, and I love how you wove in her undying devotion to her husband in spite of his regrettable weaknesses. A lesson we should all take note to imitate.

  2. This is wonderful. I can't wait to read further into it.
    Thank you

  3. Thanks for a fascinating post! What an amazing story! Her artwork is beautiful.

  4. As always Jes, you rock! Thanks for sharing on Wildcrafting Wednesday!!!

  5. I love these herbal posts! Great ideas of where to find herbal info sans the usual new-agey mish mash :)

    1. I must agree with you on the new-agey mish mash... Thanks for taking the time to comment Nanny Y. :)

  6. Wow, what an interesting story. Her images are beautiful, but such a sad story. Congrats on being chosen as a featured post on this week’s Wildcrafting Wednesdays! I hope you'll join us again and share more of your awesome posts.

  7. This was a fascinating post. Although, her husband did not mend his ways, her fidelity was such a testimony! In a way, I'm glad it didn't have a fairy-tale ending because we all need to trust God, no matter what. I have 5 daughters and carry the heavy burden of passing on a lot of herbal knowledge. but God is helping me train them with fun thrown in. ;)

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed her story also! She was a prudent (albeit creative) woman who did what she needed to do for the survival of her family... a great example of making the best during hardships. 5 daughters? How absolutely FUN!!! Yes, lots of work there but lots of joy in between ❤️❤️❤️