Sunday, 2 July 2017

Elizabeth Blackwell: An Inspirational Life

by Lizzie Howe


Image by Elizabeth Blackwell
(Chawton House)
While visiting Chawton House last week for an English trip, we were taken to a walled garden at the top of the south lawn. A herb garden, inspired by Elizabeth Blackwell. Born into a wealthy Scottish family in Aberdeen in the 1707, she was trained as an artist. When she was 27 she married her second cousin, Alexander Blackwell, in secret. This was only the beginning of her misfortune, little did she know.

After some years in Aberdeen, Alexander's medical qualifications were called into question and in fear of the charges that might be laid against him he fled to London taking Elizabeth with him and away from the only home he had ever known. When in London Alexander continued with his dubious lifestyle and served as a publisher, all the while neglecting to take the required apprenticeship or join the guild. As a result of this he was fined heavily and when he was unable to pay them sent to debtors’ prison.

This left Elizabeth Blackwell destitute with a small child to care for. In a remarkable show of tenacity she set herself up to write a new herbal, a book which doctors could use in order to identify those plants they needed in their practice. The task would ultimately take her six years to complete. Untrained in botany, she visited the Chelsea Physick Garden in order to create the new herbal, under the tutelage of Isaac Rand (the curator of the Chelsea Physick Garden). Elizabeth also engraved the copper printing plates for the 500 images, and hand-coloured the printed illustrations in the first edition of A Curious Herbal.

The book was a success for its time due to the detail and accuracy of the illustrations and the need for a new herbal. With the money from the book that Elizabeth had earned through her own hard work, she paid for Alexander’s release from prison. He was then proven to be a man who clearly could not learn from his mistake as he began to accumulate debts once more, until they were forced to sell some publication rights for the book. Eventually, Alexander fled once more, this time to Sweden and without Elizabeth. After several years serving as the appointed court physician to Frederick I of Sweden, he was ultimately arrested and accused of conspiracy against the Crown Prince. On the 9th August 1747 he was taken to be executed, joking that as he had not been beheaded before he clearly needed instruction when he laid his head incorrectly on the block.

Elizabeth Blackwell continued to stay loyal to Alexander, despite his deeply flawed character, as she continued to share royalties with him from the sale of additional book rights and even attempted to join him in Sweden after he was due to be executed. Although little is known of Blackwell’s later years, she was buried on 27th October 1758. She died in poverty and alone as her child had died during the creation of A Curious Herbal.


It is a tragic story and yet an incredibly uplifting one simultaneously as Elizabeth was a woman who was both thrown into the gutter by circumstance and yet continuously fighting against it in a time when women were often powerless to act even in self-preservation. 

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