ELLEN HUTCHINS (1785-1815) is considered to be the first Irish female botanist. She was born on 17 March 1785 at Ballylickey House, Bantry Bay, Co. Cork, Ireland. She was the second youngest child of two surviving daughters and four surviving sons of the twenty-one children of Thomas Hutchins (1735-1787) JP. and Elinor (d.1814), only child and heir of Arthur Hutchins of Thomastown and Cregane Castle, Limerick.
Find out more recent results of investigation of Ellen’s life on the website EllenHutchins.com.
While completing her education in Dublin, Ellen began to suffer from poor health and a family friend, Whitley Stokes MD [1763-1840, Regius Professor of Physic at the University of Dublin], took her into his care for treatment. While recovering, she developed an interest in botany, having browsed in Stokes’ library and met the Scottish botanist James Townsend Mackay (1775-1862). Stokes encouraged her pursuit as providing both outdoor exercise and indoor occupation. On returning home to Ballylickey, Ellen Hutchins became a keen collector of algae, mosses, liverworts, and lichens, as well as establishing her own garden.
By 1806 Hutchins’ skills had become so acute that she was regularly sending specimens of algae to Mackay, who forwarded rare discoveries to Dawson Turner of Yarmouth (1775-1858, father-in-law of Sir William Jackson Hooker and grandfather of botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker), then working on seaweeds, and Lewis Weston Dillwyn (1778-1855) of Swansea, who studied freshwater algae. While respecting Hutchins’ stipulation that her name should not appear in print, Mackay did reveal her role as collector to Turner. This opened her lifelong correspondence with the latter, who guided Hutchins through classificatory systems of cryptogamic plants and overcame her isolation by sending not only books but also named specimens to act as stepping stones towards increasing her knowledge.
Hutchins’ exquisitely preserved specimens, beautiful botanical drawings, and capacity to find plants deeply impressed Turner. Although Hutchins never published, she was persuaded to allow her name to appear when her discoveries were described in the later volumes of the English Botany (1790-1817) of James Sowerby (1757-1822) and James Edward Smith (1759-1828) as well as in Lewis Weston Dillwyn’s British Conservae (1802-9) and Dawson Turner’s Fuci (4 vols., 1808-19), which also included seven of her drawings. Ellen Hutchins was one of the botanical illustrators of The British Confervae along with the artists William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) and William Weston Young (1776-1847).
In 1809 Dillwyn and Joseph Woods (1776-1864) visited Ballylickey, finding Hutchins ‘a very sensible, pleasing, square made and tolerably good looking woman’ whom both considerd ‘almost the best Botanist, either Male or Female that we ever met with’ (Dillwyn to Dawson Turner, 22 July 1809, TCC). Hutchins reputation among men of science appears formidable and even threatening. James Edward Smith claimed that she could find almost anything and William Jackson Hooker, overwhelmed by her contributions to his monographs on liverworts, British Jungermanniae (1816), told Turner in December 1811 that ‘Miss Hutchins’ discoveries alone will form an Appendix as large as the work itself’ (RGB Kew, Hooker MS1, fols. 134-6). A year later he confided to Robert Brown that ‘Miss Hutchins is a mine, but I never intend to bore her lest she should be too prolific’ (BL, Add. MSS 32439, fols. 370-71).
Nonetheless, Hooker opended his monograph with Jungermannia hutchinsiae, a new species found by Hutchins, and acknowledged her discovery of Bantry Bay habitats for almost half the species he described. Brown also honoured Hutchins by naming a genus of alpine plants Hutchinsia in 1812.
Ellen’s last years were disrupted by illness and family troubles. Her brother Thomas was paralysed and required much attention. From 1810 she also nursed her elderly mother, with whom she moved to Bandon, 30 miles from Bantry Bay, in the summer of 1813, after her eldest brother Emanuel took possession of Ballylickey House.
In Bandon, Ellen became desperately ill and barely able to care for her mother, who died in March 1814.
By May that year Ellen was back in Bantry Bay living at Ardnagashel, the estate belonging to another brother, Arthur. Although mercury treatment for a liver complaint had reduced her to a ‘mere skeleton’, her cousin Thomas Taylor reported in a letter to Dawson Turner of 26 October 1814 that her physician believed she would recover (corresp., Trinity College Cambridge). Taylor, however, thought this unlikely given her proximity to her eldest brother. Hutchins attributed her mental and physical suffering to family disputes and increasingly relied on Turner’s epistolary friendship as a source of pleasure in her unhappy life.
Her illness worsened and she died on 9 February 1815, shortly before her thirtieth birthday. She was buried in Bantry churchyard. Hutchins bequeathed her herbarium to Turner but its shipment was delayed when, following her death, fighting broke out between two of her brothers, one of whom attempted to seize Ballylickey House with forty armed men.
Eventually Turner recieved Hutchins’ specimens and drawings and ensured their continued use by botanists. Although they never met, Turner expressed deep and abiding sorrow at Hutchins’ death in the concluding volume of his Fuci (4. 1918, 152). Bringing together their shared love of botany and poetry, he lamented his loss and praised her qualities by quoting from James Hurdis’ 1794 poem: ‘Tears of Affection: a Poem Occasioned by the Death of a Sister Tenderly Beloved”.
Some plants are named after Ellen Hutchins:
- Lecania hutchinsiae (Lecania is a genus of lichenized fungi in the family Ramalinaceae)
- Pertusaria hutchinsiae (Pertusaria is a large genus of crustose lichens in the family Pertusariaceae)
- Enterographa hutchinsiae (Enterographa is a genus of lichens in the family Roccellaceae)
- Jubula hutchinsiae (Hook.) Dumort. [Jungermannia hutchinsiae or Frullania hutchinsiae (Hook) Nees.; Hutchins’ hollywort], it is a a genus of liverwort in the family Jubulaceae, named by William Jackson Hooker, first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; information about Jubula: click here
At least three marine algae are named in her honour:
- Cladophora hutchinsiae (Dillwyn) Kützing [= Conferva hutchinsiae Dillwyn], named by Lewis Dillwyn
- Dasya hutchinsiae Harvey, named by William Henry Harvey
- Ceramium hutchinsiae Mertens
A cress like little plant which flowers early in Spring, it likes rocky ground in limestone areas and is an “ephemeral”, was also named after Ellen Hutchins:
- Hutchinsia alpina (L.) R.Br., now Hornungia alpina (also Pritzelago alpina), this genus (Brassicaceae) was named in her honour by Robert Brown [now replaced by the name Hornungia (L.) O.Appel].
A beautiful moss is called Hutchins’ pincushion:
- Ulota hutchinsea (Sm.) Hammar, it was named by Sir James Edward Smith, information about Ulota: click here
Sources D. Turner, letters to E. Hutchins, Royal Collection · E. Hutchins, letters to Dawson Turner, Trinity Cam. · Burke, Gen. Ire. (1958) · H. W. Lett. ‘Censsus report on the mosses of Ireland’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 32B (1913-16), 65-165, esp. 70-71 · memoir of Ellen Hutchins, Representative Church Body Library, Dublin, MS 47 · W. H. Pearson, ‘Ellen Hutchins – a biographical sketch’, The Bryologist, 21 (1918), 78-80 · M. C. Knowles, ‘The lichens of Ireland’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 38B (1928-9), 179-434, esp. 182 · J. Bevan, ‘Miss Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) and the garden at Ardnagashel, Bantry, County Cork’, Moorea 3 (1984), 1-10 · G. J. Lyne, ‘Lewis Dillwyn’s visit to Waterford, Cork and Tipperary in 1809’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 2nd ser., 91 (1986), 85-104 · G. L. Lyne and M. E. Mitchell, ‘A scientific tour through Munster: the travels of Joseph Woods, architect and botanist, in 1809’, North Munster Antiquarian Journal, 27 (1985), 15-61, esp. 27 · Irish woman artists: from the eighteenth century to the present day (1987) [exhibition catalogue, NG Ire. the Douglas Hyde Gallery, TCD, and the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, July-Aug 1987] · D. Turner, Fuci, or Colored figures, 4 vols. (1808-19) · W. J. Hooker, British Jungermanniae: being a history and description, with colored figures, of each species of the genus, and microscopical ana´lyses of the parts (1816) · H. C. G. Chesney, ‘The young lady of the lichens‘, Stars, shells and bluebells: women scientists and pioneers, ed. [M. Mulvihill and P. Deevy] (Dublin, 1997) 28-39 · Early observations on the flora of south-west Ireland: selected letters of Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner, 1807-1814, ed. M. E. Mitchell (1999) Archives NHM. herbarium · priv. coll. family MSS · RBG Kew · RBG Kew, botanical drawings · Sheffield City Museum, botanical drawings · Trinity Cam, corresp. Dawson Turner