Robert Hume highlights the lives and achievements of three female scientists from Co Cork, and the obstacles they faced to achieve recognition of their work


The Cork scientists who were snubbed by sexism

The Ballylickey botanist; the Skibbereen astronomer; the Cloyne caterpillar collector, Madame Dragonfly. Robert Hume highlights the lives and achievements of three female scientists from Co Cork, and the obstacles they faced to achieve recognition of their work

The Cork scientists who were snubbed by sexism

VISITORS to the galleries of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew often pause to admire the beautiful illustrations of ferns, lichens and seaweed etched by Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) from Ardnagashel, Ballylickey, Co Cork, Ireland’s first woman botanist.

Yet, Hutchins may never have developed an interest in botany at all if she had not become ill when a schoolgirl in Dublin. A family friend and medical doctor, Whitley Stokes, took her in, taught her to draw and paint, and enthused her with a passion for the subject. Besides, an outdoor hobby such as plant collecting was thought to be the best possible tonic to restore her health.

In those days, a girl’s education did not include university; nevertheless, Hutchins succeeded in becoming an international authority on marine flora. On her walks along the shores and inlets of Bantry Bay she discovered previously unknown species of mosses, liverworts, lichens and algae, and established her own garden.

Prominent botanists abroad regularly corresponded with her, and exchanged specimens of non-flowering plants. Despite its remoteness, several came to Bantry Bay to meet her. Lewis Dillwyn and Joseph Woods, on a visit in 1809, considered her “almost the best botanist, either Male or Female that we ever met with”.

Amongst other books, Hutchins contributed to James Mackay’s Flora Hibernica. Her reputation became formidable: James Smith claimed she could find almost anything; and William Hooker, overwhelmed by her contributions to his monograph on liverworts, believed that “Miss Hutchins’ discoveries alone will form an appendix as large as the work itself”.

However, as a young lady, she had to be modest about her accomplishments. Only very reluctantly did she agree to have species named after her — three lichens and three marine algae.

She was also expected to put her own interests to one side so as to nurse sick members of her family — first, her paralysed brother, Thomas, who required round-the-clock attention; later her elderly mother, with whom she moved to Bandon in 1813. When she died, Ellen returned to Bantry Bay, living at Ardnagashel.

After years of delicate health, Ellen’s life was tragically cut short when she became ill with TB, from which she died in 1815, just before her 30th birthday.

Ellen Hutchins was buried in Bantry churchyard, a short walk from where she had made her discoveries. A field at Ballylickey, where Hutchins spent many hours tending plants, is known to this day as “Miss Ellen’s Garden”.

There aren’t many people with a crater on the moon named after them. But Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907) from Skibbereen, daughter of a bank manager and amateur astronomer, is one. Located on the eastern edge of the Sea of Tranquility, the crater bearing her name lies close to where Apollo 17 landed.

Clerke’s mother, who had been educated at the Ursuline College in Blackrock, Cork, attached great value to the education of girls. The family owned a four-inch telescope, and she encouraged Ellen to use it.

She observed Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons, and by the age of 11 had read Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy, and by 15 was already writing about astronomy.

Her brother Aubrey, who was studying mathematics, physics and astronomy at Trinity, tutored her to university level.

At 25 she travelled with her sister Ellen to Florence to study science and linguistics. In 1877 the sisters went to London where Agnes published articles for the Edinburgh Review about the rise of the Mafia, and the influence of Copernicus in Italy. She also wrote 159 biographies for the Dictionary of National Biography, and entries on mathematicians and astronomers with a surname between G and L (among them Galieo, Herschel and Kepler) for Encyclopaedia Britannica.

With the publication in 1885 of A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century, Clerke became internationally famous as the first scientist to capture public interest in the subject.

But she was criticised by the male establishment of astronomers for collating and summarising the works of others, and doing “too little practical work”. In reality, her three-month stint at the Cape of Good Hope Royal Observatory had gained her sufficient experience to be able to write with authority.

Soon afterwards she was offered an appointment at the Greenwich Royal Observatory, but she was deterred from accepting it because of the number of women who had been attacked at night in Greenwich Park.

In 1903 Agnes Clerke was made an honorary member of The Royal Astronomical Society, a rank previously held only by two other women; but even then, because she was a woman, she was not allowed to use its library.

Many peple still retain fond memories of Cynthia Evelyn Longfield (1896-1991) from Cloyne. Her neat, “garden fête”- style dresses and plucked eyebrows belie the fact that in her youth she wielded a machete in the Amazon jungle.

As a girl of 14, Longfield threw down her school history books; she wanted to study science — even if it was a “boy’s subject”. Luckily, her mother understood her curiosity, and bought her science books.

Unlike most women, Longfield could afford to travel, and when she was 25 went with friends on a voyage to Rio de Janiero. In her diary she recorded: “I saw three butterflies… I nearly caught a big brown moth… I was lucky enough to get a huge caterpillar”.

The intrepid explorer continued across South America by boat, train and horseback — through Argentina, northern Chile and Bolivia, on to Peru, the Andes and Lake Titicaca, and up the Panama Canal, to reach Jamaica and Cuba.

On a visit to Egypt with her mother in 1923, she caught a scorpion at the tomb of Ramases IX. The following year she was in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador collecting beetles, butterflies and moths so she could study their lifecycles.

In London, as an unpaid cataloguer at the Natural History Museum, she was put in charge of dragonflies, a “neglected group of insects” with a remarkably short lifespan of about four weeks.

Still single and with no domestic worries, in 1927 she was free to join a six-month expedition to Brazil’s Mato Grosso that was known to be rich in dragonflies, and returned with 38 species, three of which were previously unknown. One of these, Corphaeschna longfieldae, was named after her.

The self-taught young lady was now an international authority on dragonflies. Her definitive handbook, The Dragonflies of the British Isles (1937), quickly sold out, and earned her the nickname “Madame Dragonfly.”

At 60, Cynthia Longfield returned home to the family estate at Castle Mary, Cloyne. But she never truly retired, going off on expeditions all over Ireland (she loved the Burren, Co. Clare), with her butterfly net, binoculars and walking stick in hand. In her late 70s she found sufficient energy to fly around the world to attend conferences in Malta, Moscow, even Australia — stopping on the way at Fiji to search for dragonflies. What else?

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