The Exquisite Illustrations of a Pioneering Woman Herbalist

Elizabeth Blackwell, illustration of Garden Cucumber, or Cucumis sativus

In the mid-1730s, Elizabeth Blackwell did something that no one like her had ever done. Over the course of two years, she became the first British woman to produce a fully illustrated herbal — a kind of encyclopedic botanical reference guide — for commercial sale. The book was meant to aid scientists and doctors in developing and administering treatments for diseases through the use of plant-based therapies. Humans have long relied on plants for medical help, but previous herbals often featured limited or confusing images. By contrast, Blackwell’s specimens were observed from life in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden and rendered in large, detailed, hand-colored engravings. From local St. John’s Wort to the “curious love-apple” (tomato), Blackwell’s herbal features 500 plants from across the globe.

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