AS dawn broke one summer, two hundred years ago, a tall gaunt figure, hammer in hand, crept among the rocks and inlets of Bantry Bay, dredging for mosses, lichens and seaweed.
That figure belonged to Ellen Hutchins from Ballylickey, Ireland’s first woman botanist, born on St Patrick’s Day, 1785, at Ballylickey House, between Bantry and Glengarriff.
It’s 200 years ago next week since Ellen passed away, on February 9, 1815.
When she became ill at school in Dublin, a family friend and medical professor, Whitley Stokes, took her into his home in Harcourt St, taught her to draw and paint, and enthused her with a passion for his pet subject, botany. An outdoor hobby such as plant collecting was thought to be the best possible tonic to remedy her ‘disinclination for food’.
In those days, when a girl’s education did not include university, women were not accepted as serious scientists. But Stokes introduced Ellen to some of the leading botanists of the day: James Mackay, curator of the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, and Dawson Turner, who sent her books, invited her to visit his family in Yarmouth, and named one of his daughters after her.
In 1805 she returned to Ballylickey where, over the next eight years, she would do some of her finest work, collecting ‘jigsaw-puzzle shaped’ lichens and ‘long, glaucous green’ seaweeds around the sheltered coves of Bantry Bay – ‘in a bog ditch at the north side of Drouminesia Lake’, among ‘rocks in the river near the house at Inchiclogh’.
With the aid of her microscope, Ellen became an international authority on marine flora. She talked about her specimens as tenderly as if they were friends – whom she ‘met’, took an ‘interest’ in, ‘visited’ every day, had ‘pleasure’ in finding out their name, and the ‘family’ from which they came.
In 1812 she sent Dawson Turner a list of almost 1,100 plants she had found around Bantry Bay, many completely new to him. Using a family yacht, she also visited Whiddy Island. Her early lessons in drawing and painting enabled her to make quick, accurate and beautiful illustrations of mosses and seaweeds, some of which she contributed to Mackay’s Flora Hibernica. Her reputation grew: botanist James Smith claimed that ‘she could find almost anything’.
Prominent botanists abroad corresponded with her, recommended books and exchanged specimens and drawings of non-flowering plants. Despite its remoteness (Dawson said it was easier to communicate with Stockholm than Ballylickey), several ventured to Bantry Bay to meet her and go out on field trips. Modest about her accomplishments, only under pressure from friends did she agree to have species named after her — three lichens and three marine algae.
Although frequently ill herself with bilious complaints, headaches, and a severe cough, she was expected to nurse sick members of her family — first, her paralysed brother, Thomas, ‘as helpless as a child’; later, her frail mother. In 1813 she moved with her mother to Bandon after her elder brother, Emanuel, evicted them during a family feud.
When her mother died, Ellen returned to Bantry Bay, living near Ballylickey at Ardnagashel where another brother, Arthur, had planted shrubs and rare trees – including a Cork Oak.
By 1814 she had begun taking mercury for a liver complaint, and described herself as ‘reduced to a skeleton’; she asked Turner to send her some moss that she might look at from her sick bed.
She died from TB on 9 February 1815, just before her 30th birthday.
Hutchins was buried in Bantry churchyard, a short walk from where she had made her discoveries.
She bequeathed her precious collection to Dawson Turner, much of which he passed to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Some specimens can be seen today at the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. A field at Ballylickey, where she spent many hours tending plants, is known to this day as ‘Miss Ellen’s Garden’.
A booklet ‘Early Observations on the Flora of southwest Ireland’ with selected letters of Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner 1807-1814, (edited by ME Mitchell) was published by the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in 1999.
• Robert Hume is very grateful to Howard Fox at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, for his help tracking down sources for this article on Ellen Hutchins