Women of Science Series: Celebrating the Seaweeds of Ellen Hutchins
I wanted to make sure to mention that today is the 205th anniversary of Ellen Hutchins’ (1785-1815) death. I had a chance to see some of her samples, and read a book about her by her great-great-grandniece, Madeline Hutchins.
She passed away a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday. Though she suffered from illness throughout her life, that kept her close to home, she was treated with mercury, which at the time was touted as a cure, that would have poisoned her in consistent amounts. However, despite her ill health and the responsibilities as caretaker to her disabled brother and elderly mother, Ellen took the advice of her original doctor to get as much fresh air possible by taking on a hobby to busy her time, such as botany.
She quickly fell in love with the subject, and shared her findings with prominent botanists via post, though she avoided signing any of her work due to her poor relationship with praise. She admits in letters that she had anxiety and feared people who held high opinions of her through involvement with her work would be disappointed when they met her in person. Her friends and family finally convinced her to credit her findings, though unbeknownst to her, her name had been published in James Mackay’s catalogue in 1806.
Ellen went on to collect over 1000 samples, with a particular focus on seaweeds, a topic just beginning to be studied at the time, and painted many watercolors of her specimens, many of which included close-ups of their little known spores.
As a result, Ellen is now celebrated as Ireland’s first female botanist, though she was not as widely known about until the 2015 Ellen Hutchins Festival with the Bantry Historical and Archaeological Society, which was created to celebrate her contributions to botany, science in general, and to safeguard her legacy.
Read more about Ellen's work here.
Watch a short video on the Botanist of Bantry Bay here.