Who was the most famous nurse of the 1800s? Most Americans would probably answer “Florence Nightingale” although Clara Barton might get a few votes. Almost no one would remember Mary Seacole who served as a nurse and non-traditional doctor during the Crimean War at the same time that Florence Nightingale did. Unlike Nightingale and Barton she was not primarily an administrator, but rather a hands-on provider who forged strong ties with hundreds of the men serving on the bleak battlegrounds of the Crimean War.
Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 in the prosperous and attractive city of Kingston, the base of British operations in the West Indies. White British upper-class people controlled the island, while most Jamaicans of African descent were slaves. Mary’s mother was apparently of mixed-blood and was free, as were many children whose fathers were white. Mary herself writes in her autobiography “I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family;”
Mary’s mother was a boarding house keeper and a healer. That may seem an odd combination to us today, but it made sense because British officers and officials who often found it difficult to cope with Jamaica’s climate and tropical diseases, could use both services. Mary learned traditional healing methods, using plants and other common substances. While she was a teenager, Mary spent a year in London, which she apparently enjoyed despite the presence of “street-boys to poke fun at me and my companion’s complexion.” Travel was her favorite occupation and she managed to return to London as a merchant selling West Indian preserves and pickles. For most of the rest of her life, Mary Seacole combined business and healing as her twin sources of income.
After an adventurous few years in Jamaica and Panama and a short marriage to a rather frail man who died while still young, Mary was established as a prosperous “doctoress” and merchant. She visited the United States, but found the prejudice against people of color too extreme for her. She preferred England where she was accepted more neutrally, even if sometimes slighted and patronized, but for the most part she remained in the West Indies and Central America where her color was not an issue.
When the Crimean War started in 1854, Mary determined that she would go to help the troops. She heard of Florence Nightingale’s plan to take a group of nurses there and applied to be one of them, but was not accepted. Never one to give up a good idea, she raised enough money herself to pay for the expenses of the trip and set out. She found facilities in the camps and hospitals deplorable, just as Florence Nightingale did. Florence worked with the Army and the government using the rules and regulations to get her way. It was a long, difficult road, but one that Florence, well-disciplined and familiar with upper-class life, was prepared to take. Mary chose a different route. Scornful of protocol, she opened a facility called the British Hotel where she offered food as well as giving medical treatment to soldiers. Because she had no access to government money or very much in the way of charitable giving, she charged for services, but she devoted everything she could to serving the troops.
Florence Nightingale was rather scornful of Mary Seacole and probably distressed by her flamboyant dress and habits. Nonetheless Mary became a heroine to the troops and a friend of many people in high places, including relatives of Queen Victoria. When the war was over she returned to England to high praise and much publicity. She received a commendation from the queen and when she published her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, it sold well. The book is still worth reading and is available in several editions, including a free ebook version, on Amazon.com. There is also a fascinating biography Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea by Jane Robinson, easily available in the UK, but hard to find in America. It is worth searching for. We need to remember these women who lived heroically and did so much to broaden our view of what women can accomplish.