“It really is the highest form of respect to be given to any scientist,” says Madeline Hutchins of her great-great-grand-aunt Ellen Hutchins, who had a number of plants named after her.
As Ireland’s first female botanist, Ellen conducted a jaw-dropping amount of research in her eight short years of botanising, before her untimely death after years of ill-health at the young age of 29.
In this short space of time, she attracted the attention and respect of eminent male botanists at home and abroad, discovering plants “new to science, and others new to Ireland”, as Madeline writes in her article ‘Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815): Ireland’s First female Botanist’, one of a number of articles in the 2019 volume of the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.
Madeline, who is based in the UK, told the Irish Examiner Ellen has about 10 plants named after her, including a moss, Ulota hutchinsiae (Hutchins’ Pincushion).
The type specimen of this moss, and most of her other finds, are held in the Natural History Museum, London, and are still used in plant identification and research today.
“In a sense she was the right person in the right place at the right time,” Madeline says, “because botany was not yet a university subject.”
"If it had been, she couldn’t have studied it, as women weren’t allowed go to university. So she was in a slightly magic window.”
It was a window of opportunity that Ellen embraced as a welcome escape from a rather tragic family life.
Her father Thomas had died when she was just two years old and her mother Elinor was considered “an elderly woman” at age 55, having given birth to 21 children, of whom 15 died young. Ellen, who was sent to school in Dublin as a young girl, was recalled to the family home in Ballylickey, near Bantry Bay, to care for her mother, a disabled brother and an ancient housebound aunt.
Botany was suggested as an activity by a Dublin mentor and a previous teacher of Ellen and it became her passion from age 21.
“Bantry is encircled by mountain and was difficult to get there which meant botanists hadn’t travelled there. It’s an incredibly rich area for botany, second only to Botany Bay, so Ellen was essentially sitting on a goldmine of botanical treasures,” Madeline says.
Madeline’s article outlines how distinguished botanists in Dublin and the UK corresponded with Ellen and how they exchanged parcels of plants and drawings by post. Some even visited her in Ballylickey.
Madeline writes that Ellen’s significant legacy includes the type specimens held in herbaria and still used for research and identification purposes, the contribution she made to the understanding of non-flowering plants and beautiful and detailed watercolours of seaweeds.
Some of Ellen’s seaweed specimens were found recently in the archives at University College Cork.
The journal containing the article will be officially launched by Dr Mervyn O’Driscoll, Head of the School of History, UCC, in Cork City Library, Grand Parade, this evening at 6.30pm. The event is free and open to members of the public.