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Doctress and Nurse

Seacole learned to be a doctress from her mother, an “admirable doctress" (WA 2). She gave no specifics of the instruction, but that it was traditional Creole medicine, meaning herbal preparations.

As a “doctress” Seacole made the diagnosis, planned, prepared and administered the treatment herself, unlike hospital nurses who act on the instructions of doctors and surgeons. Chapter 4 of her memoir describes her work at Cruces, in Central America, where there was no doctor, and gives--the only place where she did this--a list of her remedies. A successful remedy against cholera included “an additional dose of ten grains of sugar of lead” (WA 31), meaning lead acetate, a toxic substance now considered dangerous in any dose.

Did her remedies work? We simply do not know, for she did not list full ingredients or quantities anywhere in her memoir. Nor does any other source provide accurate information on them. She did claim cures, but also frankly acknowledged that many times her remedies could do nothing (see especially Chapters 4 and 7).

Seacole even frankly admitted in her memoir that she made “lamentable blunders” at first, so that she “lost patients which a little later I could have saved.” When she later reread some notes on cholera medicines she had used she shuddered (WA 31). Treatments had to be varied, she decided, for “the course of treatment which saved one man would, if persisted in, have very likely killed his brother” (WA 31-2).

Nurse and Nursing

Seacole in her memoir never called herself a nurse or hospital nurse, but used those terms during the Crimean War for Nightingale and other nurses (WA 87, 89, 90). Three times pre-Crimea she used the verb to nurse to describe care she gave to her patroness and to her husband in their dying days, at home in Kingston (WA 5), and later to a relative of her husband’s, Thomas Day, who became her business partner at the British Hotel (WA 69). She gave no details as to their illnesses or her treatments.

During the Crimean War Seacole referred once to having nursed a “boy in the Artillery with blue eyes and light golden hair,” but she did not say what his “long and weary” illness was, nor what her treatment was (WA 61 and 153).

Seacole sometimes coupled “nurse and doctress” to describe her work, for example, when she was rebuilding her Kingston boarding house after a fire (WA 7). During the Crimean War she once called herself “doctress and nurse,” but here she was referring to the meals she served officers at the British Hotel (WA 125). She also used “nurse and doctress” when recommending “an application” to a gallant Victoria Cross winner (WA 127). Once she called herself “doctress, nurse and ‘mother’” (WA 124).

The makeover of Seacole as a nurse, and Nightingale as villainous, is extreme in a chapter “Nurses Who Made a Difference,” which mistakenly has Seacole travelling through the “British colonies” encountering and managing “several epidemics of cholera and yellow fever” (in Margaret McAlister and John B. Lowe, The Resilient Nurse: Empowering Your Practice 25). But Seacole never claimed to have managed any epidemic, and frankly reported great horrors, quite apart from Panama not being a British colony. At the British colony she did visit, the Bahamas, she collected “handsome shells and rare shell work” for sale in Jamaica” (WA 5); there is no mention of managing any epidemics there.

Also in this source Nightingale is portrayed (not for the first time) as having rejected Seacole, who travelled to Britain to volunteer as an army nurse. However, perhaps because of prejudice, she was refused. When Nightingale successfully convinced the army to allow a group of female nurses to go to the Crimea, Mary was not amongst those selected. Perhaps Nightingale did not consider Mary’s colour, lack of class and education fitting (25-26).

Yet Seacole herself knew that Nightingale had already left for the war when she applied to the War Office in London (WA 78).

The misinformation in The Resilient Nurse continues with the contention that Seacole “borrowed money to travel to the war zone and there she set up a private hotel for British soldiers” (26), although Seacole herself explained that she used savings from her business (WA 74). Moreover, she never did open a hotel, but a restaurant and store, largely for officers, not soldiers, as documented in many other places.

See also Unison's Two Campaigns.

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