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Turn the Pages of a Rare Book on Medicinal Plants from the NLM Collections

Elizabeth Blackwell (1700-1758) was the daughter of a successful Scottish merchant and one of the first women to establish herself as a botanical illustrator.

Now available from the National Library of Medicine, the world's largest medical library and a component of the National Institutes of Health, is a Turning the Pages virtual version of Blackwell's A Curious Herbal, a book published in London in parts between 1737 and 1739. Today, this book is widely recognized by scholars and the public alike for its colorful and detailed illustrations of hundreds of medicinal plants.

Discover selections from A Curious Herbal online, via iPad App, and in kiosks onsite at the NLM.

Based on the NLM's copy of A Curious Herbal, which is part of the Library's large and important collection of rare herbals and other books on plants and natural history, this Turning the Pages project includes 38 curated images from the over 500 plates in the book. Here readers will learn about Blackwell's medicinal uses for plants, such as the white lily which she thought to be "good for all pains of the joints and contracted nerves," and the grape vine which "strengthens the stomach, helps digestion, comforts ye bowels, and is a great preservative against the plague."

Blackwell originally conceived of A Curious Herbal to describe and illustrate medicinal plants from the New World because her husband, Alexander, had been sent to debtors' prison in London, and they had an urgent need to raise funds.  Blackwell selected and studied plant specimens at the Chelsea Physick Garden and drew the plants, while her husband wrote much of the text using his medical training. 

Launched at the NLM in 2001, Turning the Pages is part of an ongoing collaboration between research engineers at the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications and curators and historians at the NLM's History of Medicine Division, to help make the NLM's rare and unique history of medicine collections widely available to the public.

The NLM holds one of the world's largest collections of early books relating to medicine and natural history dating before the year 1800. Individuals and groups with an interest in the history of medicine and natural history are warmly welcome to visit the NLM's History of Medicine Division of the Library to view or use these materials.

For more information, or to schedule a visit to NLM's History of Medicine Division, please call 301.402.8878.


 Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell, portrait by Jules Lion, from Alexis Delacoux's

Biographie de Sages-Femmes Célèbres, printed in Paris, 1834.

Courtesy National Library of Medicine