Pioneering young woman scientist

A tribute, on International Women’s Day

Ellen Hutchins: pioneering young woman scientist

Botany is the scientific study of plants and Ellen Hutchins is rightly regarded as the first Irish female botanist. After schooling in Dublin, around 1805, she returned home to Ballylickey, County Cork and set about her systematic pursuit of the study of plants armed with some text books lent by Dr Whitley Stokes of Trinity College, Dublin. To put this era in perspective, it would be some 70 years before girls could sit secondary-school state examinations and a hundred years before women students gained access to Trinity College. Thus, long before women entered scientific professions this young lady was studying the plants of her native area, between Bantry and Glengarriff in West Cork and into County Kerry, firstly drawing specimens and then identifying them. She became an expert plant taxonomist, i.e. someone who classifies plants into species based on their characteristics, and specialised in very difficult groups such as mosses and liverworts. She also had a little boat which she used to collect sea plants around Bantry Bay. In an age when computers were unknown this young woman classified more than 1,000 species in her hand-written catalogue of Irish plants and made detailed drawings of many. Ellen died a month before her 30th birthday but has left a lasting legacy to science. Specimens collected by Ellen Hutchins are now in various collections around the world including Dublin, London, Edinburgh, Helsinki and New York. In a time when women did not publish in their own right, her many plant records, as well as water-colour illustrations, were included in the works of the leading botanists of the day. She had many species named in her honour including mosses and liverworts, lichens and marine algae as well as some flowering plants. Ellen Hutchins was born on St Patrick’s Day in 1785 and more than two centuries later International Women’s Day is held each year in the same month to celebrate women’s achievements throughout history. It is fitting that this young woman, working alone in what was then a very remote part of the country, should be celebrated among Irish pioneering scientists.

John Lucey MSc CBiol MIBiol MPhil is a biologist and historian living in Kilkenny.