Women in Enlightenment Science

Illustration of fig tree

The Fig Tree”. Blackwell, Elizabeth. A Curious Herbal. v. 1 (1737). Contributed in BHL from the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

In 1737, Elizabeth Blackwell published the first weekly installment of a very ambitious project. The final work, entitled A Curious Herbal (1737-39), ultimately consisted of 500 plates of plants alongside 111 pages of text providing descriptions of their medicinal uses. Endorsed by the Royal College of Physicians, the publication helped satisfy the need for an up-to-date reference work for apothecaries.

The motivation to produce this remarkable herbal arose from equally remarkable circumstances.

The daughter of a successful merchant, Elizabeth married Alexander Blackwell at the age of 28. Her husband had a long history of operating outside of the law, and his shady business dealings resulted in huge debts that ultimately landed him in debtor’s prison.

With her husband in prison and a child to support, Elizabeth decided to use her artistic skills to produce a new herbal to support herself and pay her husband’s debts. Using specimens from the Chelsea Physic Garden as models for her illustrations, Elizabeth drew, engraved, and colored all 500 plates herself and used Joseph Miller’s Botanicum Officinale (1722) as a point of reference for the text, while her husband provided the translated names of the plants.

The Herbals income secured Alexander’s release from prison. Sadly, he soon accumulated more debts, which required Elizabeth to sell some of the rights to her publication in order to raise additional funds. Ultimately, her husband left his family for Sweden, where he served as a court physician to the Swedish king until his involvement in a political conspiracy resulted in his execution. [1]

Little else is known of Elizabeth’s life, but her herbal is a lasting testament to her artistic skill and entrepreneurial prowess.

A Curious Herbal is the subject of a chapter in Dr. Anna K. Sagal’s first monograph project, Botanical Entanglements: Women, Plants, Literature, and Artwork in the Eighteenth Century, which will be published by the University of Virginia Press in fall 2021.

The book, which has been generously supported by the Newberry Library’s Monticello College Foundation & Audrey Lumsden-Kouvel Fellowship, explores how women — who were always considered amateur naturalists — participated in discourses which were often culturally barred to them. By engaging in literary and artistic projects that intersected with scientific discourse, these women made space for themselves in what was otherwise an overwhelmingly male-dominated conversation. The monograph features several women writers and artists, including Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, Mary Delany, Maria Edgeworth, Maria Jacson, Priscilla Wakefield, and Henrietta Maria Moriarty, along with Blackwell herself.

By providing free, online access to relevant literature, such as Blackwell’s Herbal, the Biodiversity Heritage Library has been an important resource for Sagal’s research on the project.

“Thanks to BHL, which provides access to texts by little-known women-naturalists and the male-authored texts that influenced them, I can conduct research around the globe without leaving my office,” shares Sagal. “Although I do have access to some research libraries and archives, many botanical texts are held by overseas libraries, which I do not have the funds to travel to.”

Photo of a woman standing in front of foliage.

Dr. Anna K. Sagal. Image credit: McMaster University

Sagal, a Teaching Fellow at Cornell College, has been studying eighteenth century British literature for eleven years. She first discovered BHL about a year ago, while searching the Internet for botanical texts. Now, when actively working on her monograph project, she uses BHL daily, most often reading titles online, but sometimes downloading select pages for later offline reference.

“I really appreciate the breadth and depth of resources pertaining to eighteenth-century botany,” affirms Sagal. “Much of the content from the Peter H. Raven Library at the Missouri Botanical Garden is very useful to me, and a lot of it is available via the BHL. I also really like that you can download files and images to look at later.”

Many works accessed through BHL beyond Blackwell’s Herbal have informed sections of Sagal’s monograph. According to Sagal, perhaps the most influential title, used in multiple contexts within several chapters of her book, is The Botanical Magazine, or Flower-Garden Displayed, published from 1787-1800. First published by William Curtis, a botanist at Kew Gardens, the name of the publication was changed in his honour to Curtis’s Botanical Magazine following his death in 1799. Still published today by Kew Gardens, it is the world’s longest running botanical magazine illustrated in color, representing two centuries of botanical history and discovery. [3]

Illustration of flowers

Daphne collina”. The Botanical Magazine, or, Flower-Garden Displayed. v. 11-12 (1797-98). Contributed in BHL from the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The Magazine was also an incredibly important resource to women naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An affordable work with frequent rates of publication, it was often an excellent way to keep up-to-date with botanical developments, and to learn about the global world of plants from the comfort of home. Especially for women without access to prestigious physic gardens or botanical research centers like Kew, The Botanical Magazine could be a vital conduit to the enchanting world of botany.

Illustration of a flower

Indian Chrysanthemum”. Moriarty, Henrietta Maria. Fifty Plates of Green-House Plants, Drawn and Coloured from Nature. 1807. Contributed in BHL from the Lenhardt Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The Botanical Magazine was also a crucial resource for Sagal’s research on another subject for her monograph project, Henrietta Maria Moriarty and her Fifty Plates of Green-House Plants, Drawn and Coloured from Nature.

Moriarty’s work was “intended for those who take delight in plants, but have not the advantage of a gardener who understands them”. Along with her fifty illustrations of plants selected for “their beauty, their odour, or some peculiarity in their economy”, Moriarty also included each plant’s Linnaean binomial and brief cultivation information. [2]  

Fifty Plates of Green-House Plants is central to Sagal’s research because of Moriarty’s unique artistic vision and her somewhat complicated legacy. Often accused of copying images from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Moriarty has long been dismissed from the history of botanical illustration. However, with the help of the BHL, Sagal has been able to compare plates of Moriarty’s work with the contemporary runs of Curtis’s publication to find several plates which she clearly drew from nature or another source, rather than mimicking the composition of a plate from the Botanical Magazine. This allows modern audiences to revisit the question of Moriarty’s artistic originality and to appreciate her work as a hybrid of both unique and sourced images.

As Sagal completes her research on Botanical Entanglements: Women, Plants, Literature, and Artwork in the Eighteenth Century, we are thrilled to know that BHL has been such an important asset for the project. We look forward to learning more about the role of women in Enlightenment science thanks to Sagal’s work.

[1] The British Library. 2018. “A Curious Herbal.” Collection Items. Accessed on September 27, 2018. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-curious-herbal-dandelion.

[2] Oak Spring Garden Foundation. 2018. “Women Botanical Artists, Part 2.” Google Arts and Culture. Accessed on September 27, 2018. https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/oQIi52WKeTK5KA.

[3] Royal Botanic  Gardens, Kew. 2018. “Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.” Accessed on September 27, 2018. https://www.kew.org/science/who-we-are-and-what-we-do/publications/curtiss-botanical-magazine.

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.