Denise Hall: Ellen Hutchins, a scientific maverick

For women interested in science in the early 19th and 20th century, botany was considered to be the most accessible — and suitable — fields to enter. But it wasn’t easy.
Denise Hall: Ellen Hutchins, a scientific maverick

There was a heavy emphasis on women’s role at the centre of the home, and this was not exactly conducive to scientific pursuits. But for reasons best known to themselves, the study of plants was viewed as an acceptable hobby for respectable young women.

Early humans used plants for food, clothing, shelter and medicine. The science of botany arose from these basic human needs, as documented by Greeks such as Theophratus (300BC) — the “ancient father of botany” — who depicted hundreds of plants in Historia Plantarum.

Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) was from Ballylickey in West Cork, and despite difficult beginnings, became Ireland’s first female botanist.

She came from a family who owned a small estate at the head of Bantry Bay and her father was a magistrate, who unfortunately died when Ellen was only two. He left a widow and six children behind him. Ellen went to school in Dublin, where her health began to deteriorate. It seems this was occasioned by being underfed as healthy appetites of any kind were not considered to be ladylike.

Dr Whitley Stokes was a family friend who, along with his wife, took Ellen under their wing in their Harcourt St house. Dr Stokes allowed Ellen to use his books and introduced her to other botanists.

In such an agreeable atmosphere, Ellen quickly regained her appetite and health, and Dr Stokes advised her to take up the study of a branch of natural history as a healthy hobby, and recommended botany, his own specialism.

This, it was believed, would encourage her to spend much time out of doors and give her an interesting occupation indoors, identifying, recording and drawing the plants she collected. Ellen returned to Ballylickey where she began to care for her elderly mother and a disabled brother. The limited free time she had was spent in the study of plants, especially mosses, liverworts, lichen and seaweeds.

What was extraordinary was the extraordinary gift that Ellen quickly displayed.

She learned quickly and clearly and had a huge talent for plant identification, and also produced very detailed — and lovely — watercolours and drawings. Ellen became a keen gardener, and she tended plants in a field in Ballylickey which was known as Miss Ellen’s Garden.

Ellen focused on cryptogams, plants that do not produce seeds, and by 1806, she was sending specimens to botanist James Townsend Mackay. Mackay sent many of these along to botanist Dawson Turner. Turner was so impressed by her work that he decided to correspond with Ellen himself.

Soon, Ellen was discovering new species and rare plants and increasing numbers of prominent botanists were becoming aware of her aptitude and tireless energy.

Over the years, Ellen and Dawson became firm friends as the many letters they wrote indicate, both with the same burning passion for their science. Ellen’s lovely drawings featured in Turner’s book Historia Fucorum. But home life was never easy for Ellen.

In 1813, she was forced to move out of her home when her brother took possession of the house. The following year, her mother died and Ellen moved in with another brother. But by now, Ellen had fallen ill and was wasting away due to a mercury treatment recommended for a liver complaint. During this difficult time, Hutchins said that her correspondence with Turner was “the one source of happiness in my life”. She died in 1815, just before her 30th birthday.

In his British Confervae, LW Dyllwin, who named the species “Conferva hutchinsae” in her honour, wrote: “I know of few, if any, botanists whose zeal and success in the pursuit of natural history better deserves such a compliment.” He included several of her illustrations in Confervae.

Ellen was Madeline Hutchins’s great great grand aunt.

Madeline and her husband are on a mission to ensure Ellen’s many accomplishments are finally recognised.

I talked to Madeline at Ardnagashel, formerly part of the Hutchins family estate, where they had rented a cottage.

Madeline, did you grow up knowing very much about your extraordinary aunt?

We live in Sussex now but we’ve always known about our ties with Ardnagashel and the family who used to live here, and we visit often. I found out that Ellen was one of 21 children but only six of them survived. And it wasn’t an easy life for Ellen, so it’s very impressive that she made such fantastic headway.

I became determined to piece together the details of her life and I became very keen on finding whatever I could of her letters, samples and drawings. And it’s been quite a trail. I’m working with the Bantry Historical Society on a celebration of Ellen’s life and work. This will take place during Ireland’s Heritage Week.

I believe you found some of her papers you hadn’t known about at Trinity College. That must have been exciting.

It was. Every time we come across something in Ellen’s life that we didn’t know about, it confirms what a significant person she was. Of course, she was expected to, first and foremost, attend to her family duties.

The fact that she did such fantastic and high quality research is a testament to the passion she had for botany, and this was despite the ill-health that dogged her. Apart from her communication with Dawson, it seems that Ellen was a pretty solitary soul who liked her garden, collecting, identifying and drawing her specimens. And she did that so well.

It’s not difficult to imagine her out there in her little boat, gathering seaweeds, or scrambling around on the rocks looking for specimens.

Yes, it’s been a fantastic process getting to know her better. She was a remarkable woman and we are very proud of her. As well as the exhibition of her life and works, we will have a memorial stone made for her.

She was buried in the old Bantry graveyard, but there is no marker.

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