International Women's Day - A Curious Herbal

8 March 2018

As part of International Women's Day our college librarian, Alice Roques, organised an exhibition of recently restored library treasures by female authors. Among the library's collections are both volumes of Elizabeth Blackwell's A Curious Herbal. The herbal was originally issued weekly between 1737 and 1739 with four illustrated plates and a descriptive page. Using specimens from the Chelsea Physic Garden, Blackwell drew, engraved, and coloured all of the images herself, and later issued the entire collection as a publication. Bound in two volumes, Hertford College is lucky to possess the complete publication which has returned from being lovingly restored. 

Aside from it's beauty, the publication is also interesting for the story that goes behind it. Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Aberdeen around 1700. Aged 28 she married Alexander Blackwell who practised as a phsyician, but who appears to have failed to receive the formal qualifications required to do this. Upon being discovered, the couple fled for London, where he established a printing firm, this time without acquiring the license required to publish. Alexander mounted substantial debts, so much so that he eventually found himself condemned to debtor's prison until he was able to repay the fines. As a result, Elizabeth was forced to find means to support herself, and her husband, which led her to find her own vocation in the publishing world. 

With the support of the Isaac Rand, curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden’s, Elizabeth embarked on her ambitious herbal project. She took her drawings to Alexander in prison, who helped to identify them as well as providing her with names in various different languages. In all, she produced 500 images. The publication was even endorsed by the Royal College of Physicians who supplied the book's title page with a Latin endorsement of the drawings. She advertised the book by word of mouth and in various journals, resulting in the publication being a success. 

Although her endeavours enabled her to settle her husband's debts, Alexander's release from prison, or even his time behind bars, appears to have done little to reform his otherwise shady character. Debts continued to rise, and eventually he fled to Sweden, leaving his wife behind. Despite obtaining the position of court physician to the King of Sweden, he became embroiled in a conspiracy surrounding the royal line of succession. He was tried for treason and executed by hanging in 1748. 


Despite the story behind the publication, A Curious Herbal stands as a testament to one woman's determination not to be defeated by her husband's failings or the patriarcal society in which she, as an independent woman, existed. You can read more about the publication on the British Library website.