Her contribution to nursing is as important, if not more so, than Florence Nightingale's, but very few people have ever heard of her.
- Patrick Vernon, organiser of the 100 Great Black Britons poll.
Mary Seacole (1805 - 1881) was a woman of mixed race that overcame prejudice in order to become a pioneering nurse and carer to soldiers throughout the world. She went from obscurity to being a personal confidante of the royal family, and was awarded many medals for her work. When she died in 1881, however, she was slowly forgotten as those who knew her died too. Then during the mid-20th Century her life was rediscovered. The University of the West Indies named a students' hall of residence after her and Jamaican nurses named their headquarters the Mary Seacole House. Her grave in London was also restored and her book The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands was reprinted in 1984.
...the ambition to become a doctress early took firm root in my mind; and I was very young when I began to make use of the little knowledge I had acquired from watching my mother, upon a great sufferer - my doll.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805, Mary Jane Grant was born to a Scottish soldier from the British Army and a free-black Jamaican nurse. For a while Mary lived with an elderly woman whom she called a 'kind patroness', who gave her a good education. Then she returned to her mother and helped her run Blundell Hall, a boarding house for sick soldiers and sailors stationed in Jamaica and their families. Mary and her mother would treat the sick casualties with herbs and local medicines. When she wasn't helping her mother, she practised being a medic on her doll, cats, dogs and even on herself.
Mary's other fascination was travelling and in 1823 she got the opportunity to do just that and see Britain. Once there, she made her way to London where she met her father's relations. She travelled to Britain with a West Indian girl, who was tormented when she was there due to her having a different skin tone from the majority of British citizens. Despite this, Mary returned to London a year later. From then on, she travelled alone whether it be travelling to the Caribbean, Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas or Central America.
Going on Alone
On 10 November, 1836, she married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole (godson of Lord Nelson) and together they set up a store in Black River. The store was unsuccessful so the couple returned to Blundell Hall. Then in 1843, disaster struck as a fire raged through Kingston and burnt down the family's boarding house. Despite this, she was determined to rebuild it and keep helping the soldiers who became injured. At this time, her husband became ill, and in 1844 he died; not long after his death, Mary's mother passed away too. Although grief-stricken, Mary knew she had to pull herself together and carry on with her life; as she says in her memoirs, 'All my life, I have followed the impulse which led me to be up and doing'. As a result, it wasn't long before she had built her own boarding house, similar to her mother's, that sold preserves and catered for sick soldiers. Her work led her to receive many proposals of marriage from the soldiers but she turned them down. In 1850 an outbreak of cholera killed 32,000 people in Jamaica and Mary desperately tried to save as many people as she could.
In 1850, Mary's brother Edward moved to Cruces, Panama, where he set up a store that sold goods to men who worked on the goldfields in California. A year later, Mary visited her brother and found that cholera had reached Panama. Despite the fact that Mary was the only person who had experience of treating people suffering from cholera, the people in Panama were reluctant to be treated by her at first, as she possessed a different skin tone to them. However, Mary persevered and the men slowly began to believe in her and receive treatment. Mary's one and only post-mortem took place in Panama; this helped her save other people's lives. Mary believed that clean conditions, good food and fresh air were important ingredients for the welfare of human beings and thus was shocked to find that people in Panama were living alongside mules, while experiencing hot and humid living conditions that made illness easy to spread. Poor conditions also led to Mary herself falling sick from cholera, but she was able to recover and when she did, she set up a boarding house in Panama too. Despite the fact that she had saved many people from cholera, the living conditions and people's attitude towards her having a different skin tone to them didn't change; in 1853 Mary left Panama. On her return journey to Jamaica, Mary stopped off in Cuba to help people there overcome cholera too. The people of Cuba called Mary, 'the yellow woman from Jamaica with the cholera medicine'. When she reached Jamaica, she found yellow fever was rife and many people needed her help.
...What a delight should I not experience if I could be useful to my own 'sons', suffering for a cause it was so glorious to fight and bleed for!
- Mary Seacole
When the Crimean War began in 1854, Mary began hearing stories of soldiers falling ill from cholera and malaria. In total 20,000 British soldiers died in the Crimean War of which 3,000 died fighting and 17,000 died of diseases. She visited London in autumn 1854 and asked the British authorities to give her a job nursing the wounded in the Crimea alongside Florence Nightingale. However, she was turned down despite the fact that she had experience of dealing with these maladies and that Nightingale didn't.
Was it possible, she asked herself, '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?' In her disappointment, Mary cried in the street.
- 100 Great Black Britains: Mary Seacole
Undeterred, Mary turned to a relative of her late husband's, Thomas Day, for financial help. Together they formed the company Seacole and Day. On her way to the Crimea in 1855, Mary visited Florence Nightingale's hospital at Scutari1, but once again her offer of help was rejected. So Mary became a sutler2 and sold provisions to the soldiers fighting in the Crimea. During the summer of 1855, she set up a store at Balaclava called the 'British Hotel', situated just two miles away from the front line. The Hotel acted as Mary's base where she worked all alone. She administered aid to sick and wounded soldiers, changed the soldiers' bandages and offered them sponge cakes and lemonade. In return, soldiers paid what they could. Sometimes she even entered the battlefield, risking her own life, to help those that were suffering. Many doctors and nurses felt that Mary was a 'quack', but other people such as the assistant surgeon of the 90th Light Infantry and numerous soldiers grew fond of her and called her 'Mother Seacole'. When Sebastopol fell on 8 September, 1855, Mary was the first female medic to receive a pass that allowed her entry to tend to the soldiers who were injured, ill and in need of food and water. Mary was celebrated by the soldiers who fought in the Crimea, but the military didn't reward her for her efforts.
Out of Business
When the war was over, in March, 1856, she closed her stores and returned to Britain with very little money. Before returning to London, she tried opening a store in Aldershot but met with little success. Now penniless, she faced charges of bankruptcy. The Times newspaper revealed her story and the magazine Punch featured a poem about her called 'A Stir for Seacole', which is set to the nursery rhyme Old King Cole.
Then, in 1857, a benefit festival directed by Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget (both Crimean commanders) was laid on to raise money for her. Over 1,000 performers took part in the benefit festival that lasted four days between 27 and 30 July. The festival was held in the Royal Surrey Gardens, on the banks of the River Thames in London. Her biography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, appeared on sale that year too, with a preface from WH Russell that read: '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'. 1857 was also the year in which the Indian Mutiny occurred; Mary was keen to go but Queen Victoria advised against it. In 1867 another fund for her, supported by the Prince of Wales, was put in place. For her efforts in the Crimean War, she was awarded three medals and Queen Victoria's nephew, Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, created a bust of Mary. She became a confidante of the royal family and masseuse to the Princess of Wales, who suffered from lameness.
Mary died aged 76 on 14 May, 1881 and was laid to rest in St Mary's Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green in north-west London. The newspapers printed various obituaries and her gravestone bears the words 'a notable nurse'.
Since 2000, the life of Mary Seacole has been taught alongside the story of Florence Nightingale in primary schools. The Royal College of Nursing also pays tribute to her every year with The Mary Seacole Leadership and Development Award Scheme. Several buildings in the UK are also named after her, in the University of Salford, the University of Central England, and also parts of the Home Office's headquarters. Thames Valley University has a centre called the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice and De Montfort University maintains the Mary Seacole Research Centre.