An amazing woman / Was it possible?

Two short pieces on Ellen by present day female Irish botanists:

An amazing woman

by Fionnuala O’Neill

Ellen was an amazing woman. She chose to learn more about the most difficult groups of plants – seaweeds, mosses, lichens – just for fun!* She was entirely self-taught but found out facts about these plants that the experts of the time, with all their expensive microscopes and scientific equipment, hadn’t discovered. She was a young woman in what was then (and still is) a very remote part of West Cork in Ireland, and lived at a time when the opinions of men – especially well-educated men – were valued more than women’s. Yet she struck up friendships and working relationships with highly respected botanists of the time, in Britain as well as Ireland, and corresponded with them as an equal. Even today that would be quite an achievement. Two hundred years ago, it must have been almost unheard of.”

*Ellen writes that she has been “amusing herself by studying botany”.

Dr. Fionnuala O’Neill is a professional botanist who works in an ecological consultancy in Dublin, Ireland. Her work takes her all round Ireland, surveying a wide variety of habitats including woodlands, grasslands and coastal environments. During her PhD she became very familiar with the mosses and liverworts of the oak woodlands in Glengarriff, 10 miles from Ellen’s home in Ballylickey, and found a sample of Jubula hutchinsiae, her first introduction to the name of Ellen Hutchins.


Was it possible?

by Susan Steele

Ellen was born in 1785 in Ballylickey. She was a female scientist in a time when women could not even enter libraries, when women had limited access to education. She was a woman who struggled with serious illness and cared for her sick mother and her invalid brother.
Yet, by the age of 27, she had learned to identify and catalogue nearly eleven hundred plants that occurred in the Bantry area.
Identifying these without detailed texts, without computers and preserving by specimen or by drawing each of these is an incredible achievement.
I didn’t believe that what she did was actually humanly possible until I read her letters and saw her drawings.

Susan Steele, PhD, MBA, MEd
Authority Chair, Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority