Desperate circumstances led Elizabeth Blackwell (~1700-1758), a Scottish botanical illustrator, to create A Curious Herbal, a gorgeously illustrated book of 500 medicinal plants. Blackwell’s husband Alexander had landed in debtor’s prison in London, and Elizabeth had to support both herself and their child–as well as to find a way to pay her husband’s substantial debts. She capitalized on her artistic skills and found opportunity in the world of botanical illustration. Eighteenth-century global botanical and colonizing expeditions, especially those in North and South America, had introduced countless new plants into European medical practice. Healers and others needed herbals, or books that described the names, images, and uses (medicinal, botanical, culinary, aromatic, folkloric, and even magical) of these ‘new’ plants. Blackwell had artistic skill, but she relied on the botanical knowledge of Isaac Rand, curator of Chelsea Physic Garden, and the medicinal knowledge of her husband Alexander, who helped her from prison, to produce her final book. Blackwell published four plates a week from 1737-1739, until she had illustrated a total of 500 plants, making enough from the sale to pay her husbands debts and free him from jail.
Native to Peru, tomatoes–or “Love Apples”–were used to treat skin and eye inflammations, as Blackwell notes: “Love Apple outwardly applyed is esteemed cooling and moistening, good for Inflammations and Erysipelas; the Juice is commended in hot Defluctions of Rheum upon the Eyes.”
For more on Blackwell’s life and work, visit The British Library, whose copy of Blackwell’s herbal was owned by Sir Joseph Banks, himself a renowned botanical explorer.
Author: Tina Gianquitto
Global Distribution of Solanum lycopersicum L.
For more stories about tomatoes, see “Me and My Tomato Plant,” “Lola’s Garden and Cherry Tomatoes,” “Social Botany,” and “Les Tomates de Mon Gran-Père Paul.“
2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Blackwell’s “Love Apples””
What is the relationship of this Elizbeth Blackwell to the later physician, who arrived in the US from Scotland?
Thanks for the great question. As far as I have been able to tell, there is no relation between the two Blackwells. The physician Blackwell was born in Bristol, England, in 1823 and emigrated to the U.S. with her parents Samuel and Hannah in 1832. (Here’s a link to an account of her life and career. “Elizabeth Blackwell’s Struggle to Become a Doctor.” https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/news-and-ideas/elizabeth-blackwells-struggle-to-become-a-doctor).