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Ellen Hutchins
(Botanist)

(1785 - 1815)

 

Contents

 

Childhood:

Ellen Hutchins was born in 1785 in Ballylickey, Co.Cork in a house that stood at the head of Bantry Bay with beautiful views of the mountains on all sides. Her father Thomas Hutchins, a fair man, was a Protestant magistrate, who severely opposed the penal laws in force against Catholics at that time.

Bantry Bay,Cork

Ellen Hutchins was sent to school in Dublin. At this time she became fragile, her health detioriorated, being insufficiently fed (healthy appetites for young girls was not considered ladylike at this time). She was sent to live with a friend of the family, Dr. William Stokes, where she regained her health and appetite.

In 1805 she returned to Ballylickey to care for her elderely mother, and her only brother living at home who was an invalid. The house was a quiet one, with few visitors and little communication with other places. Even a journey to Cork was a treacherous one, with roads so bad that men were sent on ahead to fill the boggy holes with furze bushes and stones, to enable the carriage to pass safely. Dr. Whitley Stokes advised her in the light of her troubles to take up a study of some branch of Natural history, such as Botany , which was his own speciality, and offered to lend her some books.

She soon found that this new hobby was a way to divert her thoughts from the difficulties and troubles of home. Through Dr. Stokes she became acquainted with Mr. Dawson Turner (1775-1858) of Yarmouth, England and Mr. James Mackey, the Curator of the National Botanical gardens , Glasnevin. With their encouragement she becamed skilled at finding and classifying different crytogamic plants (non-flowering plants) such as mosses , lichens and algae . Soon she discovered many new and rare species.

 

Traits:

One of Hutchin's notable traits was her modesty, which was so great that for some time, she objected to her name being published as the collector of the rare plants she had found. Even her good friend Dawson Turner had trouble persuading her to lend her name to new species. Fortunately, sometimes her scruples were overcome, and she allowed to let some plants bear her name, like the lichens Lecania hutchinsiae, Pertusaria hutchinsiae and Enterographa hutchinsiae.

Hutchinsia alpina

She was much admired and respected by her friends. Dawson Turner invited her many times to visit and meet his family at Yarmouth, England. He also named one of his daughters after her and asked her to become Godmother to another.

 

Achievements:

Like many educated women of the time, she had learned to draw and paint, thus becoming a talented artist. She illustrated accurately and beautifully, the specimens she collected, in her drawings and watercolours. Some of her drawings of 'sea plants' were supplied to Dawson Turner for his "Historia Fucorum".

Illustration of "Polysiphonia" by Ellen Hutchins

Much of Ellen Hutchin's finest work was done in and around Bantry Bay, close to where she lived. Her time spent walking the seashores and inlets, prompted her to start collecting shells. Gardening also became another of her favourite pastimes. A field at Ballylickey is still called "Miss Ellen's Garden", where she spent many happy hours tending plants sent to her by Mackey, Turner and others.

 

Later life:

Unfortunately, in 1813, an ongoing family feud, since her father's death in 1787, came to a head, and resulted in Ellen, her mother and brother being dispossessed by another brother, Emmanuel. During this time also, her mother became ill and died. Hutchins who was also ill, suffering from tuberculosis, went to live with her brother Arthur and his family, in Ardnagashel, Co.Cork. She died there, in February 1815, at the age of 30.

Ardnagashel House, in Bantry Co.Cork.,in 1950

The major part of Ellen Hutchin's botanical collection lies in Kew botanical gardens , London. A small part of her collection remains in the Cork Institution, acquired by Thomas Taylor. Specimens of many rare species of crytogamic plants discovered by her are in the Sheffield museum, in Britain, along with some of her original drawings.

Samples of jubula hutchinsiae can be viewed at the Herbarium in the National Botanical Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin.

Botanical Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin

One can only admire the reputation that Ellen Hutchins, a delicate young woman, made for herself, at a time when communication took weeks and travel was often dangerous and difficult. Her name, is not forgotten today; a number of lichens, a moss,the alpine cress, the liverwort "Jungermannia hutchinsiae" and many seaweeds are named after her by those who recognised her great work.

William Henry Harvey (1811-1866), Professor of Botany, in Trinity College, wrote this about Ellen Hutchins

"To her the botany of Ireland is under many obligations, particularly the Cryptogamic branch, in which field, until her time little explored, she was particularly fortunate in detecting new and beautiful objects, several of which remain the rarest species to the present day."