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.”
Author: Tina Gianquitto