Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Elizabeth Blackwell, naturalist

Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758) of Scotland is not a well-known as the American pioneer doctor of the same name, but she is one of the most famous and impressive early eighteenth-century botanical illustrators. Born Elizabeth Blachrie and trained as an artist, she married her cousin Alexander Blackwell, who though enterprising and well educated, failed in both his Aberdeen medical practice and his London printing shop. Alexander’s excessive spending and fines from his failed business led him into debtor’s prison.

Needing to raise funds to get her husband out of prison, not to mention care for her family and home, Elizabeth came up with an ambitious plan, to create an herbal to document and illustrate the exotic plants of the Old and New World. With her artistic training, Elizabeth could draw the plants and her husband, with his medical background, could provide the proper names and descriptions for the herbal. Encouraged by Sir Hans Sloane and at the recommendation of Isaac Rand, the curator of the Chelsea Physick Garden, Elizabeth took up lodging nearby and drew the plants from the gardens, visiting her husband to get the needed textual information.

Elizabeth not only made the drawings, but she engraved the 500 copper plates and then hand-colored each individually. The resulting A Curious Herbal, published between 1737 and 1739 was successful enough to spring Alexander from prison. [The “curious” in the title is an archaic use of the word, meaning ‘accurate and precise’] Alas, Alexander became involved in more unsuccessful businesses and debts again grew for the Blackwell family. In 1742, hoping to find greener pastures, Alexander moved to Sweden where he was more successful, even being appointed as court physician to Frederick I of Sweden. Still, he managed to reach too far and ended up being convicted of conspiracy of trying to alter the line of Swedish succession and beheaded on July 29th, 1747. In an interesting side-note, he laid his head the wrong way on the chopping block and when corrected by the executioner, noted that he lacked the needed experience as this was his first beheading.

The published product of Elizabeth and Alexander’s labors, though, was an enduring success. It was acclaimed especially by physicians and apothecaries and received the approval of both the Royal College of Physicians and College of Surgeons. Such was the demand for the herbal that two decades after the first edition, botanist and pharmacist Dr. Christoph Jacob Trew reissued the work in a German edition. Prints from the original edition are not only rare and lovely but are testament to determination and skill of the remarkable, Elizabeth Blackwell.

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