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Life and work
Ellen Hutchins was from Ballylickey, where her family had a small estate at the head of Bantry Bay, County Cork Ireland. Her father, Thomas, was a magistrate and died when Ellen was two years old, leaving a wife and six children. Ellen was sent to school near Dublin, and while there, her health deteriorated, largely it appears through being underfed (healthy appetites not being considered ladylike). Dr Whitley Stokes, a family friend was consulted and took her under his and his wife's care in his house in Harcourt Street, Dublin. Here Ellen regained her appetite and health, and Dr Stokes advised her to take up the study of a branch of natural history, as a healthy hobby, and recommended botany, his own specialism. This would encourage her to spend much time out of doors and give her an interesting occupation indoors, identifying, recording and drawing the plants she collected.
Ellen returned home to Ballylickey, living with and caring for her now elderly mother and a disabled brother, and spending any free time she had in the study of plants, particularly mosses, liverworts, lichen, and seaweeds. She learnt quickly and clearly had a gift for plant identification, and also produced very detailed watercolours and drawings, and meticulously prepared specimens. She sent samples to Dr Stokes which he passed onto other botanists. Through Dr Stokes she had become acquainted with Scot James Townsend Mackay (1775–1862), a curator at the Botanic Garden of Trinity College. He helped her in the classification of plants she was collecting. She contributed to his Flora Hibernica. In 1807, Mackay sent samples of hers to Dawson Turner (1875 - 1858) botanist in Great Yarmouth, for his publication "Fuci" and when he sent a thank you note, this was the beginning of a seven year correspondence and exchange of specimens and drawings. A selection of the Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner Letters has been published by the National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin, Dublin in 1999. This publication also reprints the list of nearly 1100 plants that Ellen prepared at the request of Dawson Turner for "a complete catalogue of plants of all kinds that you have found in your neighbourhood". Ellen began work on this in 1809 and finished the list in 1812 and it was subsequently published by the Linnean Society.
Ellen's ability to find new plants, and the quality of her drawings and specimens drew admiration from the leading botanists of the day, and her work was featured in many of the leading publications, so although she never published herself, she was a major contributor to the new and developing plant sciences of her era. At first refusing to have her name associated with her finds, she later relented, and her name and her specimens appear now in the most significant collections in the UK, Ireland and the USA. Sir James Smith wrote of her that "she could find almost anything". Dawson Turner, in his "Fuci" in 1819, after her death says"that botany had lost a votary as indefatigable as she was acute, and as successful as she was indefatigable." In William Hooker's "Jungermanniae" Ellen's name is more or less connected with nearly every rare species contained in that grand work.
Nearly all of her collecting was undertaken in the Banty area and Co Cork. She contributed to Lewis Weston Dillwyn's work British Confervae. Her rare finds included lichens, and three species are called after her:
- Lecania hutchinsiae
- Pertusaria hutchinsiae
- Enterographa hutchinsiae
At least three marine algae are named in her honour:
- Cladophora hutchinsiae (Dillwyn) Kützing (= Conferva hutchinsiae Dillwyn)
- Dasya hutchinsiae Harvey
- Ceramium hutchinsiae Mertens
Ellen was also a keen gardener, and she tended plants including ones sent her by Mackay in a field at Ballylickey, known as Miss Ellen's Garden. She was at her happiest in the garden, or out in her little boat, gathering seaweeds, which she then brought home to classify and paint.
Her work was hampered by a decline in her health, and by late 1812 she was seriously ill. Her mother and her moved to Bandon in 1813 to receive medical care, and her mother died there in 1814. Ellen moved back to be cared for by her brother Arthur and his wife Matilda at Ardnagashel, close to Ballylickey, on Bantry Bay. and Ellen died here on 9th February 1815. She was buried in the old Bantry churchyard. Her grave is unmarked, but a plaque will be put there this year, 2015, the bicentenary of her death, by the Bantry Historical Society and the Hutchins family.
On her death her collection of specimens and drawings passed to Dawson Turner and much of it is now in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with some in Sheffield City Museum. Other specimens and drawings had been sent to leading botanists of her day and featured in their publications, and the specimens went into their collections. Today they can be found (and in some cases seen online) at Trinity College, Dublin; the Natural History Museum, London; the Linnean Society, London (Smith collection); and the New York Botanical Garden (William and Lynda Steere Herbarium). Her letters to Dawson Turner are in Trinity College, Cambridge; and Dawson Turner's letters to her are in Kew Botanical Gardens' library and archives.
- Lett H W Census Report on the Mosses of Ireland, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1915
- Staff. "Species Search: Cladophora hutchinsiae". AlgaeBase. Retrieved 2012-10-20.
- Staff. "Species Search: Dasya hutchinsiae". AlgaeBase. Retrieved 2012-10-20.
- Staff. "Species Search: Ceramium hutchinsiae". AlgaeBase. Retrieved 2012-10-20.
- Butler, Patricia (2000). Irish botanical illustrators and flower painters. Suffolk: Antique collectors club. p. 22. ISBN 9781851493579.
- Dawson Turner, Fuci Vol. IV, London 1807-1819,
- Robert Braithwaithe The British Moss-Flora, London 1887-1905
- Newsletter and Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, Vol 19, No 4, Oct 2003, page 18.
- Irish Scientist Article
- Sheffield City Museum
- University of California, Letters of Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner 1807-1814 at the Wayback Machine (archived March 13, 2001)
- Kew archive
- Kew archive at the Wayback Machine (archived October 2, 2006)
- Irish Universities Promoting Science at the Wayback Machine (archived October 4, 2006)
- Irish Examiner article
- Irish Southern Star article
- Early Observations on the Flora of South West Ireland. Dublin: National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin. 1999.
- Pearson, W H (Sep 1918). "Ellen Hutchins: a Biographical Sketch". The Bryologist 21 (5): 78 – 80. Retrieved 8 Feb 2015.
- Lett, H W (1915). "Census of the Mosses of Ireland". Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 22: 70–71.
- Mulvihill, Mary (1997). Stars, Shells and Bluebells. Women in Technology and Science. ISBN 978-0953195305.