There’s a reason Mary Seacole was voted the greatest black Briton in history. Long before Silicon Valley coined the term “social entrepreneurship,” she was using her business savvy to address society’s urgent medical needs and subsidize medical treatments for the poor. Did you know that indigenous people in the Caribbean understood germ theory hundreds of years before Europeans jumped on the band wagon? Mary did! She combined that understanding with modern medical techniques to combat cholera, infection, and disease in the Caribbean, the Crimean War, and England. We’ll also discuss the snarky things Karl Marx said about the British and French, why comparing Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale is misguided, and that time Mary sold refreshments to “battle spectators” in the 1850s.
Links & Additional Resources
In 2004, Mary Seacole was voted the greatest black Briton; you can read a brief biography at www.100greatblackbritons.com.
A watercolor painting of Mary Seacole, c. 1850 (unidentified artist). (Credit – public domain)
Sketch of Mary Seacole drawn by William Simpson during the Crimean War, 1855. (Credit – public domain)
Let me, in a few words, describe the British Hotel. It was acknowledged by all to be the most complete thing there. It cost no less than £800. The buildings and yards took up at least an acre of ground, and were as perfect as we could make them. The hotel and storehouse consisted of a long iron room, with counters, closets, and shelves; above it was another low room, used by us for storing our goods, and above this floated a large union-jack. Attached to this building was a little kitchen, not unlike a ship’s caboose – all stoves and shelves. In addition to the iron house were two wooden houses, with sleeping apartments for myself and Mr. Day, outhouses for our servants, a canteen for the soldiery, and a large enclosed yard for our stock, full of stables, low huts, and sties. Everything, although rough and unpolished, was comfortable and warm; and there was a completeness about the whole which won general admiration. The reader may judge of the manner in which we had stocked the interior of our store from the remark, often repeated by the officers, that you might get everything at Mother Seacole’s, from an anchor down to a needle.
The front cover of Mary Seacole’s bestselling autobiography, published in 1857. Here’s a passage from the beginning of her life:
My mother kept a boardinghouse in Kingston, and was, like very many of the Creole women, an admirable doctress; in high repute with the officers of both services, and their wives, who were from time to time stationed at Kingston. It was very natural that I should inherit her tastes; and so I had from early youth a yearning for medical knowledge and practice which has never deserted me…
I saw so much of her, and of her patients, that 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…whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll soon contracted it. I have had many medical triumphs in later days, and saved some valuable lives; but I really think that few have given me more real gratification than the rewarding glow of health which my fancy used to picture stealing over my patient’s waxen face after long and precarious illness.
Before long it was very natural that I should seek to extend my practice; and so I found other patients in the dogs and cats around me. Many luckless brutes were made to simulate diseases which were raging among their owners, and had forced down their reluctant throats the remedies which I deemed most likely to suit their supposed complaints. And after a time I rose still higher in my ambition; and despairing of finding another human patient, I proceeded to try my simples and essences upon – myself.
You can read the entire text of her book here.
Painting of Mary Seacole by Albert Charles Challen, 1869. (Credit – public domain) Notice the medals on her blouse, a way to honor the soldiers she served and cared for.
Photo of Mary Seacole taken in 1873. (Credit – public domain)
Helen J. Seaton wrote an incredibly insightful article called “Another Florence Nightingale? The Rediscovery of Mary Seacole“. A couple of excerpts:
Nurses who were interested in what is now called advanced practice nursing pointed out that Seacole’s practice and conduct was of great significance to the genesis and history of nursing. It is true that Mary Seacole did nurse but her practice was far broader — diagnosis, prescription, preparation of herbals and pharmaceutical medicine, a little minor surgery, and doing a postmortem on a cholera victim to learn more about the effects of cholera. Hopefully she will eventually have her own place in history instead of being ‘a black Nightingale’ (Pollitt, 1992). Seacole has also been called a nurse practitioner, independent practitioner, or advanced practice nurse because she performed a number of nursing and medical activities without direct supervision from a doctor. In fact, many doctors felt threatened by her ideas on cleanliness, good ventilation, nourishing food, and the separation of patients with contagious diseases. Furthermore, she financed her own practice due to her shrewd business skills in owning and managing her boarding houses and in being a sutler during the Crimean War.
And about the supposed “competition” between Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole:
The manner of their service was drastically different. Even before she went to the Crimea, Nightingale knew that surmounting the bureaucratic problems of the army’s medical services and establishing a female nursing group which authorities and medical men alike could respect was going to be more important than any individual patient care she might do. Nightingale gained her reputation by the organization of nursing services during the Crimean War. After the war she worked tirelessly to improve public health and raise the status of nursing. The result of the introduction of women nurses into the British Army was no small matter in the history of nursing and was a testimony to her tremendous public support in forcing the antagonistic military hierarchy to accept a female with authority into their ranks. She also experienced prejudice and resentment from doctors and the military establishment. Nightingale is being criticized for not doing more, for not being more progressive, etc. but she took on the establishment years before women could even vote. Mrs. Seacole’s strength seemed to be more in hands-on activities such as direct patient care. She was an entrepreneur who was able to use her skills as a merchant to finance her medical and nursing practice. It is probably true that Mrs. Seacole had more practical experience, especially with tropical diseases. However, both administrative and hands-on care are necessary for the effective delivery of health care. Both women made a great contribution to the history of nursing in their own way and, hopefully, there is room for both of them.
If you have a spare hour, there’s a television documentary from 2005 titled “Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea” that can be viewed in four parts on youtube: (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). The script uses extensive quotes from her autobiography, though it does play up the supposed “competition” between Nightingale and Seacole.