Ellen Hutchins: Significant Scientist

In her short life (she died just before her thirtieth birthday) Ellen Hutchins of Ballylickey discovered a significant number of new species of non flowering plants (mosses, seaweeds and lichens) and was a serious scientist before the word ‘scientist’ was even invented in 1833.

British Flora. William Jackson Hooker 1842. Hooker ( First Director of Royal Botanic Gardens,Kew ) describing the Rock Hutchinsia, one of several plants named after Ellen and commenting on her contribution to the science of botany.

British Flora. William Jackson Hooker 1842.
Hooker ( First Director of Royal Botanic Gardens,Kew ) describing the Rock Hutchinsia, one of several plants named after Ellen and commenting on her contribution to the science of botany.

Ellen was active as a botanist between 1805 and 1812, based at home in Ballylickey, on the shores of Bantry Bay, and fitting her studies around caring for her elderly and frail mother and a disabled brother. Ellen searched seashore, woodland, peat bog, mountainside, islands, riverbanks, and her own garden for specimens, and back home she matched them to those already known to botanists and sent those that she considered new to fellow botanists for confirmation and publication.

Her scientific skills in identifying, preserving, and describing the plants were added to by her incredible artistic skill in drawing them. Leading botanists of the day, including James Mackay in Dublin, Lewis Dillwyn in Wales, Dawson Turner and William Hooker in England, were keen to receive her materials. Engravings of her drawings and her descriptions appeared in the notable botanical publications of her day, and the authors such as William Hooker, first Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London were full of praise for Ellen, recognising the significant contribution that she had made to the understanding of these branches of botany, and honouring her by naming plants after her. JW Hooker Flora Britannica

Her reputation continued through the next generations of those studying the non flowering plants, known as cryptogamists, and within that grouping, bryologists who study mosses and liverworts, algologists who study seaweed (marine algae), and lichenologists who study lichens. In these specialist fields today, her name is still known and her status as a significant scientist recognised. She appears on published lists of Irish Scientists and Irish Women Scientists, and is widely regarded as Ireland’s First Woman Botanist.