Ellen Hutchins: Ireland’s First Botanist

Born on 17th March 1785 in Ballylickey, a small village located in a sheltered bay off the west coast of Ireland near Bantry, Ellen was a force who exerted herself with zeal and enthusiasm in identifying plant specimens in the area.

At the time, Bantry was isolated with little in the way of experts to examine the rare and unique flora that grew in the coastal village. At a young age, Ellen suffered from poor health and was sent to live with Dr William Stokes, a family friend. During her time with Dr Stokes who was an amateur botanist, Ellen was encouraged to pursue botany to exercise the body and mind. She would often spend hours in his library reading his botany books. However, family matters forced Ellen to return to Bantry to care for her ageing mother and return from Dublin to Bantry.

At the age of 20, Ellen already showed remarkable expertise and experience with the seaweeds of Bantry Bay. Being a native of the area, Ellen used her local expertise and curiosity to list and identify the various plants that grew in the area. Professor James Mackay of Trinity College Dublin encouraged her to pursue an education in the Cryptograms – these are the non-flowering plants of the seaweeds, mosses, lichens, and liverworts. His instrumentation in her scientific pursuit of Cryptograms is displayed in a letter to fellow associate Dawson Turner:

“I am a little proud of having been instrumental in setting her a going in a branch of botany in which she has made such a conspicuous figure – she had never examined nor dried a sea plant until I gave her the hint in the summer of 1805 when I had the pleasure of spending a few days with her at Ballylickey”

Thus began a lifelong career for Ellen as an active botanist which lasted from 1805 to 1813. Already by the age of 21 Ellen had over 1,100 samples collected – a feat for just one person. Her contribution to her science was remarkable and often she shared her research by way of correspondence with fellow enthusiasts and leading botanists of the time. She had correspondence with botanist Dawson Turner and a strong friendship resulting from their passion for plants, which lasted for 7 years up until her death. 

He even tasked Ellen to record all plants in her area, which took about 3 years to complete with 200 plant species listed. She often sent samples collected from the area to her correspondents who would marvel at both her preservation skills and watercolour depictions of the plants.

However, poor health and duties of care to her elderly mother and disabled brother often took time away from her studies of Cryptograms. This is displayed clearly in her correspondence to Dawson Turner, in which she describes her difficulties. Their friendship was one of support and in times of difficulty, each would comfort the other and offer consolation. After her death, Ellen willed most of her collection to Turner where they remain in his herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London.

Contribution to Science

Ellen Hutchin’s identification skills were highly prized, her work was sufficiently renowned to be published in leading scientific papers and articles. Throughout her active years as a botanist, Ellen identified and discovered 17 new plant species. She also proved that one species of seaweed, the Velvet Horn (Codium tomentosus) was capable of fruiting bodies – something which botanists previously thought impossible in seaweeds. Her watercolours of specimens were highly detailed (see below) and used by fellow botanists to study the new specimens identified on the shores of Bantry.

Ellen was an avid Conchologist (shell collector). Through her work, Ellen identified at least 2 new species of shell, for example, she identified Lyonsia norwegica and would send boxes to her friend Turner and his daughter Maria. In a letter to Turner on 2nd Nov 1809 she said; “Though our shores are all rocky and not as rich in shells and plants, we have many species taken up with the local coral sand in a very perfect state. Perhaps no one spot produces a better variety”.

Honouring Ellen

She received significant recognition for her contribution to the study and discovery of Cryptograms. Much of her work was published in journals where she shared her discoveries with other botanists such as Turner. In fact, Turner describes the seaweed Huthinsinia in his book, The British Flora, which was named in honour of Ellen, mentioning his praise for the work she contributed to the field. There are many specimens which have been named after Ellen for both her discoveries and overall contribution.

Hutchin’s Pincushion moss (Ulota hutchinsiae) was named after Ellen Hutchin’s by Sir James Edward Smith, the founder of the Linnean Society. He said; “a lady whose numerous discoveries in the more difficult departments of Botany justly entitle her to commemoration in the specific name.

Every year in Bantry she is celebrated by the ‘Ellen Hutchins’ festival, which attracts many people to celebrate her work facilitated through a series of events and workshops. The impact she has had on Ballylickey is not forgotten. Her great-great-grandniece, Madeline Hutchins, researches and writes about Ellen and is organiser of the ‘Ellen Hutchins’ festival. On 21st September 2022, the Environmental Research Institute Building (ERI) UCC, which facilitates, amongst others, marine research, was renamed the Ellen Hutchins Building in her honour. Madeline Hutchins was also present at this event in her honour.

Ellen Hutchins died on the 9th of February 1815 at the age of 29 after suffering for nine months from poor liver as a result of Tuberculosis. She was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Garryvurcha Churchyard, Bantry where a plaque has been erected in her honour for the contribution she has made to botany.

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