black history medicine

Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole was a Jamaican-born nurse who helped soldiers during the Crimean War by setting up a “British Hotel” behind the lines for sick and convalescent officers. She was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991.

Seacole was born Mary Grant in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. She was of Scottish and Creole descent as her parents were a Scottish soldier in the British Army (probably called James Grant) and Mary Jane Grant a free Jamaican woman who ran Blundell Hall. Blundell Hall was a boarding house which was considered one of the best hotels in Kingston at the time. Seacole would play at being a nurse as a child slowly graduating from treating dolls, to pets to helping her mother who was a nurse to treat real patients. Seacole’s mother was a great believer in the herbal Caribbean and African medicines and passed her knowledge on to her daughter. Her education was possible due to a ‘kind patroness’ who would also pay for her training as a nurse.

In 1821, Seattle visited London for a year where she was exposed to some of racial prejudices of the time. She noticed that one of her travelling companions, a West Indian was taunted by children because of the colour of his skin. Seacole, of mixed heritage was spared from such taunting. On her return, Seacole nursed her patroness through an illness and upon her death a few laters later, returned to her family home to work alongside her mother. Seacole would also assist at the British Army hospital at Up-Park Camp.

In 1836, Seacole married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole and the couple moved to Black River but after their store failed they returned to the family home. Seacole then suffered a series of tragedies, Blundell Hall burned down in 1843 and a year later, both her husband and her mother died. Seacole then threw herself into work, building up a reputation and becoming widely known and respected. In 1850, Kingston was hit by a cholera epidemic and Seacole successfully used herbal medicines and other remedies including lead acetate and mercury chloride in treating her patients. Seacole believed that the infection had been brought on a steamer from New Orleans, Louisiana, demonstrating knowledge of contagion theory. She also dealt effectively with a yellow fever outbreak in Jamaica and her fame grew.

Seacole was a frequent traveller, and visited the Bahamas, Haiti and Cuba where she gained knowledge in how people there used local plants and herbs to treat the sick. While in Panama in 1851 to visit her brother, Seacole found herself in a cholera outbreak and successfully managed to treat the first victim, cementing her reputation there as a medical practitioner and bringing her a succession of patients. Rich patients paid, but Seacole would treat the poor for free. Seacole was able to conduct an autopsy on one victim of the disease, and was able to learn more about the way in which the disease attacked the body. At the time, Panama was a popular route between the coasts of the United States, and Seacole saw an opportunity for a business, opening the British Hotel, a restaurant which could serve up to 50 diners. In 1852, Seacole moved to Gorgona, where she briefly ran a woman-only hotel before returning to Jamaica. Her journey was delayed due to racial discrimination when trying to book passage on an American ship, and Seacole was forced to wait for a British boat to take her home.

In 1853 Seacole was asked by the Jamaican medical authorities to tend to victims of a severe outbreak of yellow fever, but the epidemic was so severe there was little she could do. Later that year, Russia invaded Turkey and Britain and France went to Turkey’s aid and the Crimean War began. British soldiers arriving in Turkey were contracting cholera and malaria and within weeks around 8,000 men were suffering from these diseases, posing a far greater threat than the enemy they were sent to fight. Seacole travelled to London and applied to be part of Florence Nightingale’s team of nurses. Despite her experience in treating cholera, Seacole was rejected and used her own money to travel to the Crimea with her relative Thomas Day. While travelling to the proposed site of her hotel, Seacole visited Florence Nightingale’s hospital in Scutari where she was provided with a bed for the night. Seacole then travelled to Balaclava, a few miles from the battlefront, where she set up the British Hotel. She described it as “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”. As Seacole was independent, she was allowed the freedom to do as she pleased and quickly began providing medical care to soldiers from both sides as well as warm clothes, blankets, boots and saddles for horses. She would ride out into the field in order to treat the wounded, undeterred by the cannon balls flying around her.

In 1856 when the war ended, Seacole returned to Britain with very little money. She attended a celebratory dinner for 2,000 soldiers at Royal Surrey Gardens in Kennington where Nightingale was chief guest of honour. Huge crowds were waiting outside, and Seacole herself was also celebrating by the collected masses. By November that year, Seacole was declared bankrupt, a fact which was highlighted in the British press leading to a fund set up for her which would restrict her later movements. Seacole wished to travel to treat the wounded of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 but was unable to due to her financial problems and the words of the Secretary of War, Lord Panmure. Seacole was then persuaded to write an account of her live, and in 1857 the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands was published. It was the first autobiography written by a black woman in Britain. In 1860, she returned to Jamaica and, using the money from the Seacole fund she bought land near her New Blundell Hall. A decade later, she returned to Britain and became the personal masseuse to the Princess of Wales. A marble bust of Seacole was carved by Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg and exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1872. In 1881, Seacole died at her home in Paddington, London.

Seacole had become well known by the end of her life, but she was overshadowed by Florence Nightingale and thoughts of her quickly faded from public memory. Recently, interest in her has grown and she was cited as an example of “hidden” black history in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. She had remained well known in the Caribbean, and in 1991, she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit. The headquarters of the Jamaican General Trained Nurses’ Association was christened “Mary Seacole House” in 1954, followed by the naming of a hall of residence of the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. There are now several buildings named after her, including the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice at Thames Valley University which created the NHS Specialist Library for Ethnicity and Health, a web-based collection of research-based evidence and good practice information relating to the health needs of minority ethnic groups, and other resources relevant to multi-cultural health care. There is now a blue plaque with her name placed at 14 Soho Square, where she lived in 1857. In 2004 she was voted 1st in an online poll of 100 Great Black Britons and in 2005 a portrait of her was used on one of ten first-class stamps depicting important Britons. In 2007, Seacole was introduced into the National Curriculum in the UK and she is taught alongside Florence Nightingale in Primary Schools.

Sources here, here, here, here and here.

Leave a Reply