Elizabeth Blachrie Blackwell (1707-1758) was a Scottish botanical illustrator and the author of A Curious Herbal, published in 1737 and 1739. Blackwell was the first woman to have singularly published an herbal, an encyclopedia detailing the medicinal properties of plants.
This illustration of toothwort is one of 500 botanical species Blackwell painted from living specimens at the Chelsea Physic Garden, a resource designed to educate apothecaries on plant identification. Once a week for two years, Blackwell published four plates that she had drawn, engraved, and hand-coloured herself. Blackwell also engraved the text of the work, an unusual practice in botanical manuscripts. Traditionally the production of such an herbal would have employed three separate artists, but Blackwell completed all three tasks herself. The College of Physicians, when presented with Blackwell’s creation, issued a glowing endorsement. Previous herbals sorely lacked the comprehensiveness of Blackwell’s atlas of medicinal plants, and Blackwell enjoyed financial success from her work. She used the proceeds from her herbal to liberate her husband from debtor’s prison.
Toothwort’s molar-shaped blossoms led medieval herbalists to prescribe it for toothaches. Though Blackwell assigns toothwort the family name “Dentaria,” she does not indicate any dental remedies in her notes: “The Stalks grow about six Inches high, and the Flowers are Purple. It grows in Mossy ground at the Roots of Trees. The Toothwort is accounted by Matthiolus, binding, cooling, and cleansing, and good to promote Sleep. The Water distill’d from the Roots he extolls is good for all sorts of Fluxes and the Epilepsy.”