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Friday, January 26th, 2007, 07:37 AM
Elizabeth Blackwell's curious 'Herbal' volume


By Maureen Gilmer

She cooked up the idea to get her husband, Alexander, out of debtor's prison. She needed money and a lot of it to pay his bills or he was stuck there forever. But even a well-educated woman could not earn that kind of cash with an ordinary domestic job. And there was little help from her wealthy family because Elizabeth Blackwell had eloped with this man, her second cousin and a self-styled physician.

In 1730 England, Elizabeth was left to fend for herself.
The benefit of a first-class education heavy on the arts and a good hand at the drawing board, however, gave Elizabeth some skills. Plus she'd earned fundamental knowledge of midwifery in her husband's defunct practice. And the failed publishing venture that got Alexander in prison added even more collective knowledge to this couple.
So together they decided to produce an illustrated medical botany book to buy him out of jail.

Elizabeth moved into a house close to the Chelsea Physic Garden where she became friendly with gardeners and artists at this famous apothecary garden and laboratory. Her natural charms or sheer tenacity gained the confidence of rather important names of medicine and botanical illustration. They assisted her in the monumental task of creating her own "herbal," or book of plants used in medicine. At that time two new herbals were on the market, but they lacked pictures. Elizabeth knew that without illustrations for plant identification, an herbal was next to useless.
This endeavor was no small task. Elizabeth drew her illustrations from real plants, which lent to them a degree of realistic detail that was unknown in Gerard's and Culpeppers' famous herbals a century before. She spent a great deal of time in prison with her husband, working out the details of the text, which she also typeset into the manuscript.

A Jill of all trades
Elizabeth spent two years painstakingly drawing each plant by sunlight and, when necessary, by flickering oil lamp and candle. Then this stalwart woman learned the engraver's trade so she could hand carve the images in reverse onto metal plates. A staggering 500 illustrations would grace the four volumes published between 1737 and 1739, and collectively entitled A Curious Herbal. It would be later translated into German and renamed Herbarium Blackwellianum. Some versions that exist today remain in the original black and white etchings. Other versions and reprints were watercolored by hand.

The works were accepted by physicians and apothecaries far and wide, a tribute to both her skill and personality. All this occurred in a time when women were barred from both medicine and science, and only recently allowed to enter the realm of botany. Once produced, the Herbal paid her husband's debts and freed him. Sadly, they would split up soon after. Alexander moved to Sweden where, after pursuing half a dozen endeavors, he would be caught up in political intrigue and beheaded.
Elizabeth would give birth to three children, but all died at a young age. It is said she did no more publishing and returned to her original occupation as a midwife. Despite her fading into the mists of history, Elizabeth's work lives on as one of the most widely used and accepted medicinal plant books of her day.

The Missouri Botanical Garden Library has original copies of the Blackwell herbal with its pages and illustrations posted on the Internet for all to see. They can be found at The Illustrated Garden Web site at www.illustratedgarden.org. Once on the site select "Browse Authors" and then "Elizabeth Blackwell" to find her biography and links to the books and illustrations. There are two volumes of the English version and a third with illustrations from the German.

Oddly enough, a century later another Elizabeth Blackwell would become the first woman to attend medical school in America. Their stories are often confused because both are considered among the most important women in the history of medicine, in both England and the United States.