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.
Florence Nightingale’s struggle to build an independent life for herself took many years. Her mother and her sister couldn’t believe that she wanted to give up the social activities that went with upper class British life. Nonetheless, Margaret managed to obtain training in nursing and when she was 32 years old she had the opportunity to become superintendent of the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London. For the first time she could move away from her family and start a life of her own, but the Institute did not give her scope for developing the talents that made her famous. The war in the Crimea which started in August 1854 was the catalyst that demonstrated Florence’s skills.
The British had not fought a war in decades and were confident they could defeat Russia which was threatening to block their access to India. It wasn’t until British troops reached the Crimea that their vulnerability to the climate and poor sanitary conditions was demonstrated. Before the battles had started 20 percent of the troops had come down with diarrhea, cholera, or dysentery. Hospital facilities were poor or non-existent. At last Florence Nightingale had an arena in which her talents shone, but it was a difficult struggle to convince the authorities that she could help. Finally she was able to gather together a group of women who had some experience as nurses. They included lay nurses and both Roman Catholic and Anglican nuns. Florence left for the Crimea in October 1854 and established her headquarters in the hospital at Scutari. It was there that she proved her abilities as an executive, managing the delicate relationships between the army and the nurses, establishing methods of providing food and supplies for the hospital, and introducing sanitary measures that saved lives.
The press in England spread the word about what Florence’s nurses were accomplishing, although there was controversy over their roles. Some readers complained about the inclusion of Roman Catholic nuns in the group because they feared proselytizing, although almost a quarter of the troops were Irish Catholics. While she was in the Crimea, Florence’s fame as the “lady with the lamp” grew even though she did less and less nursing. She was essentially a manager and purveyor of supplies, but the public insisted upon viewing her as a gentle nurse who soothed poor, sick soldiers. The army officers and politicians who interacted with her were more realistic in describing her as a tough executive who fought to build a viable organization of hospitals.
While Florence continued her struggle to improve the health care given to British soldiers and to overcome the reluctance of Army officers to make changes, her reputation in England continued to grow. She was a national heroine. Several songs were written about her including the popular “Nightingale of the East”:
Now God sent this woman to succour the brave,
Some thousands she saved, from an untimely grave;
Her eyes beam with pleasure, she’s bounteous and good
The wants of the wounded, are by her understood.
With fever some brought in, with life almost gone.
Some with dismantled limbs, some to fragments are torn.
But they keep up their spirits, their hearts never fail.
Now they’re cheer’d by the presence of a sweet Nightingale.
We don’t know what Florence thought of this tribute, but it certainly set her firmly in the tradition of the bountiful woman overflowing with kindness and charity. That was the way her public wanted to think of her and of the other nurses. Once they returned from the Crimea they were expected to step back into their lives of homemaking and serving the weak and wounded.
When Florence returned to England in the summer of 1856, she had no intention of stepping back. The more she learned about health conditions among the troops, the more determined she became to change the situation. She pushed hard to get an official commission appointed and although she couldn’t serve on the commission herself, it was her persistence that eventually brought it about. She labored relentlessly to write a report, which she eventually published as Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army. Founded Chiefly on the Experience of the Late War. Here again her interest in statistics served her well. Realizing that people could visualize pictures better than rows of figures, she invented what she called her “coxcombs” to present the most important facts.
Florence Nightingale lived to be ninety years old and most of those years were devoted to improving public health. Like so many other women, her strengths have often been misunderstood. She is remembered as the sweet nurse tending soldiers, but her real achievement was far too “unwomanly” to be acknowledged while she was alive. It’s a shame that she is often misrepresented even now. There are several good biographies; one that I strongly recommend is Mark Bostridge’s recent Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon. After reading it you’ll never feel the same about Victorian women and their lives.