Mary Seacole, born in Kingston Jamaica in 1805, was the daughter of a free Jamaican woman and a Scottish solider. Mary’s mother was a ‘Doctoress’ who practiced herbal healing, and Mary inherited an interest in traditional medicine and nursing skills from her, whilst also learning more modern methods from Army Doctors who stayed with her family.
In her earlier years, Mary ran a hotel (which operated like a hospital) for primarily injured or disabled European ex-soldiers, alongside her mother. Here she furthered her nursing and business skills. She married in 1836, but her husband died just 8 years later.
Mary was a keen traveller whose financial background allowed her to visit the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti. In the 1850s, Mary visited her brother in Panama and spent time there nursing patients through a Cholera outbreak. She also adventured through jungles wearing the long dresses and hats which were fashionable at the time, and was even reported to have cooked parrots!
The Crimean War broke out in 1853 between Russia and her previous allies, including Britain. Mary, who considered herself to be British due to her paternal ancestry, travelled to Britain with a group of nurses and applied to travel to the Crimea with Florence Nightingale. Her interview was unsuccessful, possibly due to racial prejudice. However, she decided to travel to the area regardless of this, and used her shrewd business sense to set up the ‘British Hotel’ and sell food and provisions to soldiers.
As she was independent of the army, she had the freedom of movement which many in the formal nursing service could not utilise from their hospitals miles from the frontline. Due to this, when Sevatapol was under siege for nearly a year, Mary was able to visit the battlefield on horseback several times and sew the wounds of soldiers who were fighting on both side of the conflict.
For her nursing work during the conflict, Mary was called ‘Mother Seacole’ by men that she helped and letters from soldiers were published in many newspapers celebrating her work. For her achievements and care, Mary was awarded medals in Turkey and Jamaica. Despite this recognition, Mary was left financially worse off after the war ended in 1856 and suffered from ill health over the following decades. Mary died of apoplexy in 1881 and was buried in London.
She is now returning to the fame of her age, particularly in Jamaica where she is celebrated by nurses, and through her inclusion in the British National Curriculum, which has been hotly debated in recent years due to her comparisons with Florence Nightingale. Whilst Mary did not cause massive progress to the Nursing profession, she did many things which women or those of mixed race backgrounds were unlikely to achieve in her time.
Written for Sheroes of History by Stacey Dodd.
The BBC have a great interactive resource about Mary which you can fine here.
Mary wrote an autobiography called, ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’ which is still available to read today. Get it here.
There are lots of books for all different reading ages about Mary’s life. Why not have a look in your local library?
There are also loads of videos online about Mary. Here is one which is part of a documentary about her: