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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.

New Irish Supercomputer Could Be Named After Ellen

A competition to name Ireland’s new national supercomputer has been launched and Ellen Hutchins is one of six names in the hat.  ‘The competition looks to shine a light on a shortlist of six pioneering Irish scientists and to educate young students about their lives and achievements’, says the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC) which is running the competition launched this week by Minister Richard Bruton, Minister for Education & Skills.  School students are being encouraged to vote for a candidate accompanied by a short essay, poster or video to support their choice.

See above for launch of the schools website.

To enter the competition, visit

The deadline for entries is 12:00pm Friday 20th April.

Photo Credits: ICHEC

Latest Ellen Tribute: electrical box / street art in Cork

Mad About Cork added the Ellen Hutchins electrical box street art image to their collection on 20th February 2018. Mad About Cork is a guerilla group in Cork City making positive changes in derelict and run-down urban spaces through street art, guerrilla gardening, & more.

The Ellen Hutchins electrical box is the latest in a series paying tribute to significant Cork people. It’s at the start of Clontarf Bridge, just outside the Clayton Hotel in the city centre.


New Ellen Hutchins Heritage Trail

Team Ellen, of the Ellen Hutchins Festival, and Abarta Heritage have been busy this winter completing work on an exciting project, the Ellen Hutchins Heritage Trail. The results of the hard work have paid off, and the Trail Leaflet and Audio Guide are now available free to anyone interested in following in Ellen’s footsteps and hearing her story partly in her own words.

The Trail takes you round, at your pace and times of your choosing, to nine significant sites to Ellen’s story, round the shores and islands of Bantry Bay and into its neighbouring woodlands, heathland and mountains. An episode of Ellen’s story is linked to each site, written in the leaflet and enhanced by the Audio Guide, which has actors reading extracts of letters as well telling more of Ellen’s story.

The project was made possible by funding from the Heritage Council and FLAG South (Fisheries Local Action Group).

See the Heritage Trail page in the menu above for links to both leaflet (online copy) and the Audio Guide.

The Ellen Hutchins Story – the basics

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.

Festival: displays continue in Bantry and Kealkil

The third annual Ellen Hutchins Festival took place in Bantry and the surrounding area as part of Heritage Week in August.

As a legacy from the Festival, there are now two permanent displays about Ellen. One is in the Tourist Office, Bantry, which is open on Fridays through the winter, and the other is in the magical wooden building at Future Forests, Kealkil. For more information about this one see the Ellen’s Treasures page in the menu above.



25th June 1807: a beautiful present of sea plants

This is one of a series of posts of letters written by Ellen to her brothers and botanists in 1807. If this whets your appetite and you are interested in following the story, you might want to start at the beginning of the year and read the letters in date order.

Ellen wrote to her brother Sam on this day 210 years ago, and as usual she mentions the health of her Mother, how her disabled brother Tom is faring, and something about the Taylor family who are both neighbours and cousins. The news this time is about the arrival of a gift of plants.

The formality of the age means that Ellen refers to her sister-in-law Matilda as Mrs Hutchins. Matilda is married to Ellen’s brother Arthur and they are returning from Harrogate in Yorkshire, England, having been there to ‘take the waters’ for Arthur’s health.

Ballylickey June 25th 1807

My dear Sam

Tom is just as usual. He goes out in his gig often and some times goes out boating. His legs are very stiff. I don’t think he improves at all in walking. He makes few attempts and those with difficulty. My Mother is pretty well.

I have got a beautiful present of sea plants from a Mr Turner at Yarmouth. Some of the new plants I found were sent him. He was so pleased with them that he sent me some of the rarest kinds found in England and some foreign ones with some plates [drawings] and descriptions published by himself of Fuci and of Lichens.

You have not told me if you have asked Manny what answer he had to make to my letter. If he has given you any pray tell me.

How is Tom Taylor? All his friends at Inchilogh are very well. Mrs T able to come down stairs every day. She and Phyllis always enquiry after you very much. I hope you will soon enter college. You seem to wish it so much.

Mrs Hutchins says Arthur is wonderfully recovered since he went to Harrogate . I never saw so miserable looking a creature as he was before. He was like death stalking about.

All here write in love to you.

Yours affectionately

E Hutchins

Sea Plants: a large and difficult branch of botany

210 years ago today, Ellen wrote to her youngest brother, Sam.  The following portions of the letter deal with her botanising, her attempts to get a copy of Lewis Dillwyn’s book British Conferva, a gift of plants on its way to her, and her cousin Thomas Taylor, also a botanist.

Ballylickey June 18th 1807

My dear Sam

Thank you for enquiring about Dillwyn for me. I am impatient now to get it. Tom Taylor tells you wrong when he says I am a great botanist for indeed I am far from it. I have I believe made pretty good progress for the time I have been learning. My powers of observation are small and I have had too few books to do much. All the fine works on botany are expensive and my Mother cannot afford to give me books.

In the sea plants, a large and difficult branch I have done most. I have made a great many discoveries of new ones no less than 7 already and some that are not yet determined. Mr Turner, a great botanist in England, has sent me some rare sea plants. They are received in Cork. He is now composing a great work on all known Fuci. I have a work of his on the British species. There is I believe a fine Botanic Garden at Cambridge and the professor is a very excellent botanist.

Tell T. Taylor that all his friends at Inch. are very well. That Mrs T. is downstairs every day. She has been out visiting and we expect her to visit us. Alfred is in the country for one week and Joseph is sent for to Fermoy. I have little to tell you that could amuse. Little Tommy and Margaret are here and in much better health and temper than at home.

Yours affectionately


Her reference to Cambridge is because Sam was expected to be going there as a student to study Law. Little Tommy and Margaret are her nephew and niece who live at Ardnagashel, very close to Ballylickey.

1st June 1807: Ellen to Sam

Ellen’s letter to her youngest brother, Sam, written 210 years ago today – 1st June 1807

Ballylickey June 1st 1807

My dear Sam

Tom has got your letter. Arthur is gone to Dublin. We cannot tell exactly when he will return. ….. 

You have got my letter by T. Taylor before this. I hope soon to get an answer. You don’t say how or where Manny is and as of late he never writes to Tom. We have no other way of hearing of him but when you write. I suppose you will soon enter college.

My Mother is pretty well she says she would write to you some times but that it is very painful to her to stoop she is so weak.

Arthurs children are here. The little girl is a sweet tempered funny little thing. She is not at all petted but Tommy is the most troublesome obstinate ill tempered child I ever saw. His Mother pets him so, that his temper is quite ruined. ….. 

Will you tell T. Taylor that all his friends at Inchilogh are very well. Mrs Taylor is downstairs every day to breakfast.

Tom is just as usual.

I am very well, quite strong. I walk, I botanize a good deal, to that I attribute my having health or strength, for living as I do without any person to take a walk with me, if I had not Botany to interest me, I should have no inducement to take exercise.

I hope that you have made enquiry about Dillwyn’s work for me. I am very anxious to have it. It will contain plates and descriptions of new plants found by me. I have discovered a great many marine plants, great beauties too.

My Mother and Tom desire their love
Yours affectionately
E Hutchins

Ellen to her youngest brother Sam: 16 May 1807

The latest letter from 1807 posted here on the day it was written 210 years ago. Ellen to Sam, 16 May, in which Ellen uses the departure of her third cousin, Thomas Taylor, also a botanist, and studying Physic (medicine), as the means of delivering a letter to her youngest brother who was living in London. We hear that her eldest brother Emanuel (known by the family as Manny) has a habit of not opening letters. She asks all over again for help to get Lewis Dillwyn’s book on seaweed. We learn that her disabled brother Tom has a gig and begins to go out every day.

A ‘gig’ in 1807 was not a ‘single professional engagement by a musician or comedian’ or ‘an abbreviated form of gigabyte’ but a ‘light two wheeled carriage pulled by one horse’.

Sam is expected to be going to Cambridge University to study law. Ellen hopes he is studying diligently.

She is full of praise for her third cousin, Thomas Taylor, and asks Sam what he thinks of him. Some researchers on Ellen have suggested that there may have been a romantic connection between her and Thomas Taylor. So far this is the only mention I have found in the letters of anything that could remotely suggest an emotional interest between them, and it not much to go on. There are still letters that I have not read, and maybe they will reveal more. Watch this space!

Ballylickey 16 May 1807

My dear Sam
Tho’ I have not much to say I cannot let Mr Taylor go without a line to you. He seems to wish much to see you and Manny. Mrs Taylor is anxious that Manny should see him and would thank him for any advice and assistance he could give him.

I wrote to you some time ago to Eton St and fear you have not received my letter as you have not answered it. I begged you to make enquiry about a book for me that I wish very much to get. Will you acquire of Mr Sowerby No 2 Mead Place Lambeth whence “Dillwyn’s British Confervae” is to be had, how many numbers of it are published and the price of each number. Let me hear from you as soon as you have made this enquiry for me. I wrote to Manny [Ellen’s eldest brother, Emanuel] some time ago but as he has a habit of putting letters in his pocket without opening, I fear he has not read mine – will you ask him.

Tom desires you will tell Manny that he thinks Mr Parsons is offended with him for never having written to him since he went to England. He mentioned something in a letter to Tom that plainly shows he feels angry with Manny.

Arthur and Mrs Hutchins are not at home. Two of their children are here. Tom is in pretty much the same state as he has been this some time past. He has now got a gig and begins to go out every day. I hope the exercise he will have during the summer may serve[?] him, going out in his chair was not exercise sufficient for him. My Mother is better than she was during the winter. The fine weather has had good effect on her health tho’ not much on her spirits. She never goes out any where but in the garden or just about the house. I rejoice that the winter is past. She was so ill.

I am very well, quite strong.

Why don’t you write oftener? I suppose you will soon go to Cambridge. Is Manny now in town?

I have nothing new to tell you, what passes in this country cannot interest you and even if it did I should not have much to tell as I am not very inquisitive to know what my neighbours are about and we have no visitors except the Taylors. Phyllis is with us very often and is at all times our most welcome guest.

My Mother desires her love to you and hopes you will soon write.
I am my dear Sam affectionately
E Hutchins

I suppose you are diligently studying Law. Tho’ I may not see you, I hope to hear of you yet. You are now the only one of my brothers I expect to hear much of, I mean in any profession.

Tom Taylor is studying Physic. I think he looks the Doctor already. How do you like him? He is esteemed a young man of genius and has obtained many honourable marks of distinction, Premiums and Medals at College.