Born Mary Jane Grant in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica, Mary Seacole became one of the most important nurses in the Crimean War. She was the daughter of a free black Jamaican woman who was skilled in traditional medicine and a Scottish soldier. Mary learned her mother’s traditional remedies and gained a reputation as a ‘skilful nurse and doctress’ working in a boarding house caring for invalid soldiers and their wives. She married Edwin Horatio Seacole in 1836, and with her husband travelled to the Bahamas, Haiti and Cuba. While there, she studied local medicines and treatments and added them to her repertoire. Her husband died in 1844, and Mary was on her own.
In 1851, she joined her brother in Panama, where she opened a hotel. It was there she cured her first cholera patient and began her studies of this disease. She returned to Kingston in 1853 to aid in a yellow fever epidemic. Mary traveled to London, and was there when reports of the lack of necessities and breakdown of nursing care for soldiers on the Crimean front arrived in England. She immediately offered her services as a nurse and traditional healer. Despite her extensive experience and skill, she was turned away by everyone, including an assistant of the famous Florence Nightingale. Frustrated and in despair, Mary cried in the street, “[had] 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?” It is not clear if she was rejected because of her race. At 50 years old, she was old for nursing and had no formal hospital experience per se.
Determined to do her bit, Mary set up the “Seacole and Day” company with a relative of her late husband. They traveled to the battle zone in the Crimea and opened a general store and hotel near the British camp. Mary carried with her a large stock of medicines and was considered a “sutler” or a person who follows the army and sells provisions to the troops. She opened the “British Hotel” in the summer of 1855 near the besieged city of Sevastopol, and the soldiers under her care called her “Mother Seacole”. The Hotel fed the boys about to go into action and was a recovery station from those coming back from the front. Every morning, Mary would make vats of nutritious food , saddle up two mules and go to the front looking for the wounded. She would bring food, medicine and hot tea, which is the British cure-all and comforting words. As she would go along the lines, mortars and artillery fire would come close to her, while the soldiers cried “Mother! Lie down!” Mary said she would get down with “undignified and unladylike haste”. Most of the army doctors considered her a quack, but some recognized her valor and skill. Sir William Howard Russell, the first war correspondent, was the first to sing her praises. He called her ‘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’. She was the first woman to enter Sevastopol when it fell.
However, her war adventures had not left her in good financial health. She was left with expensive and unsaleable stores at her hotel after the war ended, and returned to England a poor woman. Back home in England, Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget organized a benefit festival at the Royal Surrey Gardens in Kensington to raise money for Mary. She also published her autobiography in 1857. Despite being awarded a Crimean medal and having a bust of her made by Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, she was largely forgotten and died unknown on May 14, 1881.
There is revived interest in Mary Seacole and a statue was erected on June 30, 2016 outside St. Thomas’ hospital in central London. Even for this remembrance there was controversy as St. Thomas was the place where Florence Nightingale established her first nursing school. The statue to Mary is considered a PC sop, proving some people can complain about anything. We should remember the words of Sir William Howard Russell wrote in her the introduction to her autobiography and which are engraved on her statue, “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.”
Sources available on request