Ellen Hutchins of Ballylickey (1785 – 1815), Ireland’s first female botanist, is being celebrated by an exhibition in Trinity College Dublin, hosted by the Botany Department there. Spectacular seaweed specimens, collected by Ellen in Bantry Bay over 200 years ago, are being displayed for the first time, alongside letters written by Ellen to botanist James Townsend Mackay of Trinity. Some of the letters still contain tiny scraps of seaweeds that Ellen folded into pieces of paper inside them. There are also some wonderful full size specimens that have kept their colour incredibly well; it takes real skill to layout a specimen carefully, as was discovered by participants of the Seaweed Event on Whiddy Island during the 2016 Ellen Hutchins Festival.
The Hutchins family has also lent Trinity letters that Ellen wrote to her brothers about her study of plants. Transcripts of the letters are available that tell the story of Ellen, a remarkable young woman who in just eight years of botanising, before her early death aged 29, discovered many new species of seaweeds, lichens, mosses and liverworts.
Trinity College Dublin played an important part in Ellen’s botanical studies, although it was a time long before women were able to attend universities. Dr Whitley Stokes, Professor of Medicine of Trinity and a family friend, suggested to Ellen that she take up the study of botany (his interest) as a healthy outdoor occupation, one that also provided indoor activity with identifying, preserving and drawing the plants found. James Townsend Mackay, in charge of the Trinity Botanic Garden, visited Ellen in Ballylickey in 1805 and suggested that she study seaweeds. Ellen sent her specimens to Mackay and he posted them onto the relevant botanists, making Ellen part of the specialist botanical community studying non flowering plants, known as cryptogams.
The Trinity exhibition has been put together by the Ellen Hutchins Festival, with the Botany Department of Trinity, for the staff and students of the School of Natural Sciences. Included are information panels telling Ellen’s story and prints of some of her beautifully detailed and accurate drawings of seaweeds. The exhibition is relevant to all those interested in West Cork people, heritage, the history of women in science, botany and botanical art.
There are free public Open Sessions on the last Thursday of each month (March 30 and April 27), 5pm to 6.30pm, when members of the Ellen Hutchins Festival team will be on hand. See the website for more information and directions to find the old Anatomy Building where the exhibition is being held. www.ellenhutchins.com.