Hutchins, Ellen

Ellen Hutchins (1785 – 1815)


Ellen Hutchins was born in Ballylickey House, Bantry. Her father’s business interests were in fishing and farming. In her short life (she died, probably from tuberculosis, at only 29), and at a time of few educational opportunities for women, she became an international authority on mosses, ferns, lichens and seaweeds.

Ellen Hutchins was a delicate child. While at school in Dublin she lived with Dr Whitley Stokes, a family friend. For the sake of her health, he encouraged her to take up an outdoor hobby such as plant collecting. Stokes was a medical doctor and, like many of his colleagues of the time, had a great interest in botany (mainly as a source of herbal remedies). He introduced her to some eminent Irish naturalists, including James Mckay, Curator of the Glasnevin Botanic Gardens.   With their encouragement, she became skilled in identifying plants by the time she was 20.  

Ellen Hutchins specialised in the difficult area of non-flowering plants (the cryptogams). She had an unerring eye for rare plants and discovered many species new to science. Although she stipulated that her name should not appear in publications, her international reputation is reflected in the many species which include her name (such as the lichen Lecania hutchinsiae, the Kerry fern Jubula hutchinsiae, the liverwort Jungermannia hutchinsiae and the genus Hutchinsia).  

Although ill health confined her mostly to Bantry, Ellen Hutchins regularly corresponded and exchanged plant specimens with prominent botanists abroad. They also sent her books to compensate for the isolation of Bantry and many visited her there, keen to conduct plant-collecting forays in the area she had made famous. Lewis Dillwyn and Joseph Woods, on a visit in 1809, described her as ‘a very sensible, pleasing square made & tolerably good looking woman’ and considered her ‘almost the best Botanist, either Male or Female that we ever met with’.

Some of Ellen Hutchins’ herbarium collection and her beautiful illustrations are now in Kew Gardens and in the British Museum . Duplicate specimens are also to be found in herbaria in Ireland and elsewhere.

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