America’s First Illustrator

webavatar cover in top left

America’s First Illustrator

Monday September 11, 2017 Written by Genevieve

Meet the 19th century doctor who illustrated 2,000 books, drawing everything from phoenixes and lottery advertisements to circus performers and fire-fighting horse carts.


In 1795, an outbreak of yellow fever ravaged New York City. A sensitive young physician named Alexander Anderson reluctantly took up a post at New York’s infamous Bellevue Hospital. But what he really wanted to do was draw. Anderson hung in there throughout the epidemic which resulted in a devastating death toll, including the loss of many of his loved ones. Finally, after years of service and suffering, the young doctor did a 180. Deciding that life was fickle and potentially very short, he devoted himself to his real love, woodblock engraving.


And so, America’s first official illustrator came into being – a man who lived for 95 years and worked on over 2,000 publications. Thanks to the digitising powerhouse of the New York Public Library, you can now view hundreds of Anderson’s illustrations here – and heads-up, it’s a pretty eclectic collection. There are scrapbooks dedicated to rabbits and other rodentstradesmen and craftsmenprinting presses, lottery advertisementscircus performers, and slaves escaping and rebelling.

Anderson is credited as the first person in America to engrave on end-grain boxwood, thus introducing ‘a medium that would economically allow prolific illustration in 19th-century printing’. That's according to Jane R. Pomeroy, whose book about the doctor-artist can be accessed here