Who is Mary Seacole?
Born in Jamaica in 1805 to a Scottish soldier father and a mixed-race mother, Mary Seacole travelled to Crimea in the 1850s to set up a treatment centre for soldiers.
Known as “Mother Seacole”, she was not a traditional nurse like Florence Nightingale or Edith Cavell. Indeed, having been taught herbal medicine by her mother – a “doctoress” who used traditional Caribbean and African herbal remedies – she was rejected four times when she tried to join the official nursing ranks.
Mary Seacole“This is an incredible woman who is a role model to us all,” said Baroness Benjamin at the time. “Because we all have to face adversity, we all have to face obstacles but when you’re determined, when you know you can break down those barriers and that’s what she showed.”
A painting of her hangs in the National Portrait Gallery after a local antiques dealer accidentally found it behind a framed print at the boot sale in Burford, Oxfordshire.
Seacole was an inveterate traveller, and before her marriage visited other parts of the Caribbean, including Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas, as well as Central America and Britain. On these trips she complemented her knowledge of traditional medicine with European medical ideas. In 1854, Seacole travelled to England again, and approached the War Office, asking to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea where there was known to be poor medical facilities for wounded soldiers. She was refused. Undaunted Seacole funded her own trip to the Crimea where she established the British Hotel near Balaclava to provide ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. She also visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded, and became known as ‘Mother Seacole’. Her reputation rivalled that of Florence Nightingale.
After the war she returned to England destitute and in ill health. The press highlighted her plight and in July 1857 a benefit festival was organised to raise money for her, attracting thousands of people. Later that year, Seacole published her memoirs, ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’. Seacole died on 14 May 1881.