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Mary Seacole was an intrepid, pioneering nurse and heroine of the Crimean War.
The story of her life is of an inspirational woman, a peerless model of self belief, triumph over prejudice and preconception who throughout her life, demonstrated determination and sheer strength of character.
Mary Seacole’s achievements were truly remarkable, especially given that she was a mixed-race woman living in the 19th century. Breaking social rules and prejudices, she travelled the world, ran businesses, wrote a book and most memorably, help those in dire need – often facing the most hazardous situations and diseases.
Mary was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston Jamaica in 1805 to a white father, a Scottish Lieutenant and a Jamaican mother of African descent. Her parents owned and ran a hotel often frequented by military men and their families.
Mary’s mother was a respected healer, who like many Jamaican women practised the herbal medicines of her African heritage. Many of her patients were Army and Navy personnel from the British garrison.
Mary learnt with enthusiasm both nursing skills and herbalism from her mother and by the age of 12 was helping to look after patients, quickly gaining her own reputation as a skillful nurse. Whilst she learnt traditional Jamaican remedies and treatments from her mother, she also learnt a lot from army doctors who boarded at the hotel. Mary loved the British Army and was proud of her links with it, throughout her life.
Her need for excitement and adventure began to manifest in her teens and saw Mary leave Jamaica unaccompanied; travelling to London twice, yielding to what she called an “irresistible and unladylike inclination to rove”. In her twenties, again unaccompanied, Mary sailed to the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti, learning how people used local plants and herbs to treat the sick, whilst trading home cooked pickles and preserves for shells and fancy goods, which she sold on her return to Kingston.
Image: National Geographic
In 1836, back in Jamaica, Mary married an Englishman Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole and for the next few years, settled down. In 1843 her parent’s hotel was consumed by the great fire of Kingston; in 1844 Edwin died and Mary lost her mother around the same time. Temporarily cowed by these setbacks, she settled in Kingston and rebuilt the hotel and her livelihood.
In late 1850, whilst making her way to the Californian goldfields, Mary visited her brother in Las Cruces Panama and opened another hotel. When cholera broke out there, she treated many victims, gaining extensive knowledge of its pathology. As a result of her experiences, she became fascinated by the disease, even performing a secret post-mortem on one of the victims, in order to understand how cholera attacked the body.
Mary returned to Jamaica in 1853, just as a yellow fever epidemic swept through the island. Having been widely praised for her work, the Jamaican medical authorities approached her to provide nurses to care for sick soldiers. She tended the sick and dying, often successfully treating the tropical fever with locally picked medicinal herbs. For a short time, she became nursing superintendent at Up Park camp, the Head Quarters of the British military in Jamaica.
In 1853 Russia invaded Turkey. Britain and France, alarmed by the growing power of Russia, went to Turkey’s aid. This conflict became known as the Crimean War. Soon after British soldiers arrived in Turkey, they began to fall ill with cholera and malaria. Within a few weeks an estimated 8,000 men had contracted these diseases. At the time, disease was a far greater killer of soldiers than the enemy. In the Crimean War, 21,000 soldiers died, 3,000 from battle wounds and a staggering 18,000 from disease.
In 1854, Mary heard about the war and the poor medical care. Desperate to go to her “sons” in the British Army (many of whom she had known in Kingston), Mary travelled to England and petitioned the War Office, the army medical department and the secretary of war to offer her services. Despite having extensive nursing experience, excellent references and knew many of the soldiers and regiments involved, she was universally rejected.
Undaunted, at the age of 50, Mary decided to travel to the Crimea at her own expense. In 1855, forming a partnership with her friend Thomas Day (a relative of her husband who was in the shipping business), she set off in a ship stocked with medical supplies. On her arrival, she was confronted by cold, dirty and hungry soldiers, with the sick and wounded lacking proper medical care. Mary and Thomas established the British Hotel near Balaclava (a few miles from the front). This provided quarters for sick and convalescing officers and a canteen serving good food to soldiers.
It has been suggested that her independent status enabled a freedom of movement impossible for Florence Nightingale’s formal nursing service, allowing her to become a familiar figure at the battle front. Using the money earned from the hotel, Mary took mules laden with food, wine and medicines across country to the front line, bringing medical comfort to the maimed and dying; most critically after the assault on the Redan, where 25% of the British force was killed or wounded. Two months later, she tended Italian, French and Russian casualties at Tchernaya.
Her reputation grew, soon the entire British army knew of ‘Mother Seacole’, she considered the soldiers her ‘sons’ and she their ‘mother’. W.H. Russell, the first modern war correspondent, made Mary Seacole famous. He described her as “a warm and successful physician, who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle field to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings”.
At the end of the war, Mary returned to London destitute and in poor health. However, her hard work hadn’t gone unnoticed – many soldiers wrote to the newspapers extolling what Mary had done for them. The press having highlighted her plight, galvanised Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget, both Crimean commanders (with the support of the royal family), to organise a benefit festival – attended by 80,000 people – to raise money for Mary. Additionally she was encouraged to write an autobiography, ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’, considered an ‘outstandingly vivid piece of writing’, which sold well. The results of both initiatives, allowed her to live in some comfort until her death in 1881.
Her book was prefaced by W.H. Russell who stated “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead”.
Despite being feted during her lifetime for risking her life to bring comfort to wounded and dying soldiers; and becoming the first black woman to make her mark in British public life, following her death, Mary Seacole fell into obscurity in Britain (though not in her native Jamaica), for around 100 years.
If following in Mary’s footsteps appeals to you, you can find more information about working in health and social care from the following useful websites:
Don’t want to put your life on hold to get a qualification: Health and Social Care at the Open University
Prepared for full time study: Health Careers in the NHS
The Royal College of Nursing: Becoming a Nurse