Black History Month

Mary Seacole: the forgotten nurse

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This article is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team which examines this year’s Black History Month from the angle of ‘making history’. The opinions expressed in these pieces are those of the editors themselves, and do not necessarily reflect Backbench’s stance as a whole. 

Mary Jane Seacole was a pioneer of nursing who tended to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. Believed to have been born in 1805 in Jamaica, Seacole was openly proud of her Jamaican and Scottish ancestry, writing in her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, about her ‘good Scotch blood coursing through my veins. My father was a soldier of an old Scottish family.’

Growing up in Jamaica, Seacole and her mother ran a boarding-house commonly frequented by British officers, and it was here where she gained knowledge concerning nursing and herbal medicine whilst treating soldiers and their wives.

Seacole later nursed cases of cholera after joining her brother Edward in Panama in 1851. It was here where she saved her first cholera patient and gained significant knowledge of the disease, which she contracted and thankfully, recovered from. She then returned to Jamaica in 1853 and nursed those suffering from the yellow fever epidemic.

I first came across Seacole whilst on a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in 2018 and happened upon the only oil-painted portrait of Seacole known to exist, discovered in 2002 by the author, historian, and Seacole’s biographer Helen Rappaport.

I was shocked that throughout my five years of studying history in school, with three years spent partially focused on the history of medicine, that nobody had ever even uttered her name. All the while, Florence Nightingale’s Crimean War efforts are taught regularly across the education system and we’re all aware of the impact she made. Museums and nursing schools exist in her name, and Brookhill Leys Primary School recently changed its name to The Florence Nightingale Academy to honour the NHS. Temporary ‘Nightingale hospitals’ have also been set up during the current COVID-19 pandemic to prevent any overwhelming of the health service. All of this for Nightingale, yet no interest of this nature has ever been shown to Seacole.

‘Mother Seacole’, as she was known to the soldiers she nursed, is an example of a Black woman who persevered in the face of prejudice. Although Seacole visited Britain twice during her late teens, it was the outbreak of the Crimean War which led her to London in the hope of offering her services to the War Office, the Quarter-Master General’s Department and the Medical Department.

Seacole had applied with the desire to heal the wounded as a nurse, but after being refused, she proceeded to travel independently to Crimea, where she set up the British Hotel to care for the injured. She asked herself following these rejections – including one from one of Florence Nightingale’s assistants – if it was possible that ‘American prejudices against colour had taken root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?’

Seacole finally arrived in Balaklava in February 1855, after travelling there at her own expense, and it was here where she established the British Hotel. By June 1855, she was well acquainted with the troops, taking food and her skills as a nurse to the dying and wounded after the Battle of the Great Redan and again after the Battle of the Chernaya. She was later awarded a Crimean medal for her work.

After the abrupt end to the war, Seacole returned to England in financial ruin and was declared bankrupt. She had become a familiar figure to newspaper readers in Britain, primarily due to the efforts of Sir William Howard Russell, the first modern war correspondent who spent 22 months covering the Crimean War in The Times. He noted that she was ‘always in attendance near the battle field to aid the wounded’, and due to the support of those she had nursed in the Crimea, commanders Lord Paget and Lord Rokeby organised a benefit festival to raise money for Seacole.

In 1857, W.H. Russell prefaced Seacole’s auto-biography and wrote: ‘I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead’.

England, however, did forget Seacole, and she spent her final 25 years of life in obscurity. It’s only recently that Seacole has finally begun to receive the recognition she deserves.

She was voted the ‘greatest Black Briton’ in 2004, and a statue was unveiled in her honour in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital in London in 2016, following a 12-year campaign which raised £500,000 to help recognise the contributions made by people of colour throughout British history. The NHS also created the ‘Mary Seacole programme’, a six-month leadership development programme focused on developing key leadership skills for NHS employees or those providing NHS funded care who want to take on their first formal leadership role or for those who have done so recently.

Mary Seacole was a woman who demonstrated a great amount of selflessness in caring for those who needed her, and in doing so, set a great example for someone we should strive to be more like. Her selflessness is also something which we have seen mirrored in our wonderful key workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a time which has changed everything we’re used to, our key workers have been on the frontline keeping things going. We struggle at times to appreciate what medical professionals sacrifice for us every single day, and the coronavirus pandemic has only amplified this. Seacole is an example of an individual who did something good – a selfless Black Briton who wanted to help despite the racism she faced and is, therefore, someone who we must learn about and honour.

Image credit: Sumit Surai, licence here.

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