Three mini biographies with personal perspectives

A note on Ellen Hutchins
by Mark Lawley

Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) was one of the first botanists to explore Ireland’s native flora.

Ellen was a daughter of Thomas Hutchins (1735-1787) of Ballylickey House and his cousin Elinor née Hutchins (1743-1814), and took up botany after being treated for illness by Dr Whitley Stokes, who was keen on botany as well as being a physician. Ellen was also cousin to the Irish physician and botanist Thomas Taylor (1786-1848) of Cork and County Kerry. Family connections were important to Ellen, who lived at a time when it was quite normal for middle-class people to marry relatives, and when physicians had to be able to identify plants, many of which were the source of medicines.
Mark Lawley is a botanist who is also interested in the history of Irish and British natural history. His article about Ellen and other bygone bryologists* can be found at http://britishbryologicalsociety.org.uk

*Bryologists study bryophytes – an informal grouping of the following plants – mosses, liverworts and hornworts.

 

Ellen: one of the first
by John Parnell

Ellen Hutchins, is known as Ireland’s first female botanist. She might be better considered as one of the first botanists of either sex working in Ireland and one of the early pioneers of botany anywhere in the world.

Why was Ellen and her work remarkable?

Firstly, Ellen lived and studied plants in what is even now a remote corner of Ireland – Bantry Bay. When Ellen was living there, Bantry was exceptionally difficult to get to: it really was very isolated, the roads were in a terrible state, especially over the mountain passes and it was easier to travel by sea.

Secondly, Ellen grew up in the late 18th Century. At that time the American War of Independence had just concluded, the slave trade to America was at its height, the French Revolution had concluded with the ascendency of Napoleon leading to the Napoleonic Wars and the French fleet had anchored in Bantry Bay: this was the time of Wolf Tone and the United Irishmen. Naturally, very little was known about the plants that grew in Ireland at that time.

Ellen was an indefatigable* botanist finding large number of plants, especially seaweeds, and in novel places, thereby making a significant contribution to baseline knowledge about Ireland’s plant biodiversity. Such knowledge is now considered critical in terms of conservation and development. So, in summary, Ellen was working in turbulent times, and in a remote location, and on a subject about which very little was known.

John Parnell is Professor of Botany at Trinity College Dublin.
*indefatigable – always determined and energetic in trying to achieve something and never willing to admit defeat. It is a great description for Ellen and her botany.

 

Ellen Hutchins of Ballylickey: Botanist

by Angela O’Donovan
Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) Ireland’s first female botanist was born and lived most of her short life in her home place at Ballylickey beside the shore of Bantry Bay in West Cork.

Because she was a female, she was not allowed to attend University. However, she was a very determined young lady, and she basically educated herself in the many aspects of botany, using books she could access from a family friend in Dublin, in whose home she lived for a short while during her convalescence from an illness. She very much enjoyed city life in Dublin, living with the family of Dr Whitley Stokes in a very lively household.

Ellen’s father died when she was only two years old, and her only sister died when Ellen was just four years old. When Ellen was in her late teens her mum got ill and as Ellen was the only girl in the family, she had to leave Dublin and return home to the very isolated Bantry Bay area to care for her mother. At that time, there was no social care system such as we have today. Although Ellen and the Hutchins family were part of the Ascendancy, yet when sickness came to the family, they had to rely on their own resources to deal with it.

It was during these years caring for her mam in the very early 1800’s that Ellen Hutchins blossomed out as a superb botanist, collecting plants that grew in her local area, from mountain top to lakeside to seashore. From comments written about Ellen by the chief botanists of that era both in Dublin and in the U.K., it is clear that Ellen was top class at finding and identifying such a vast range of plants including many sea plants (algae). There are a number of plants named after her, and rightly so.

Ellen lived a lonely life in West Cork caring for her mother. West Cork was extremely isolated at the time, with no proper roadways, no railway, and no motorised vehicles. She often complained of having no one of her own age in the locality, as a friend or companion. Life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Ireland was dictated by status. Ellen, as part of the Ascendancy, could not under any circumstances have any dealings with the lower class (“the mob”) who were mostly Catholics, although she appeared to have a lot of sympathy for the plight of these poor people. So she had no social life after she left Dublin, which she regretted. But Ellen accepted her lot, and persevered with her duties of caring for her mother.

However, every spare moment she had, she availed of it to tend to her plants. These plants were the love of her life. In reading her description of finding new plants, she describes them as “Little Gems”, Little Treasures” etc, and one can feel the sheer satisfaction she achieved from her work. In fact, botanising, and receiving letters from other famous botanists of the day, was her only joy in life. Ellen Hutchins, as a pioneering scientist, was truly committed to her subject. And Bantry, West Cork and Ireland are very proud and hugely indebted to Ellen Hutchins for all her hard work and commitment, in utilising her brilliant skills as a botanist in finding and identifying so many plants that were, at the time, new to science. These plants from Bantry Bay and surrounding (plant rich) territory are now recorded, and preserved in museums and colleges for the benefit of current-day students studying botany.

Angela O’Donovan is Cathaoirleach (chairperson) of the Bantry Historical & Archaeological Society