The story of a remarkable young woman.
In the early years of the 19th century, in a remote corner of Ireland, a young woman in her twenties, with intermittent poor health, and mostly self taught or tutored from a distance, in the space of just eight years, made a whole series of discoveries of plants new to science. Ellen showed great skill and determination in identifying plants, particularly the non-flowering plants, known as cryptogams – seaweeds, lichens, mosses and liverworts. These plants were not well understood at that time, and Ellen’s work was significant in increasing knowledge of them. She sent high quality specimens (dried plants on paper) to the leading botanists of the time who described and published them. Ellen had numerous plants named after her. She was and still is highly respected by those in botany and the history of science for the contribution that she made to scientific knowledge. On top of all this, Ellen was also an accomplished botanical artist and over three hundred of her watercolour drawings of seaweeds survive.
She developed an incredibly strong friendship with the eminent botanist Dawson Turner of Yarmouth, England, through correspondence only. They never met. He named a daughter after Ellen and made her godmother to the child. Many of their letters to each other have survived, and these and other letters Ellen wrote to her brothers, allow us to learn about her story through her own words.
Ellen suffered from poor health and had caring responsibilities for her mother and a disabled brother, and in 1813 she fell seriously ill, was unable to do any botanising for eighteen months or more, and died a month before her thirtieth birthday, on 9th February 1815.
Ellen was a field botanist / plant hunter / plant collector, working on native plants in her home territory. She was born at Ballylickey on the shores of Bantry Bay, and all her plant hunting took place round Bantry Bay and in its neighbouring mountains. As a resident botanist, she knew the area very well indeed and would return to the same spots again and again to check on plant growth.
Bantry Bay was a very remote place two hundred years ago, and its great wealth of plants had not been explored, so Ellen was in exactly the right place, and at the right time to make significant discoveries. She also had the right skills and showed huge determination and perseverance in searching for and then identifying the plants.
There is no portrait of Ellen. A silhouette of how she might have looked was created by the University of Ulster in the 1980s using costume and hair details appropriate to the period.
Those who have discovered the Ellen Hutchins story think that it deserves to be more widely known. The annual Ellen Hutchins Festival in and around Bantry during Heritage Week in August explores botany and botanical art through her story.