Encyclopedias

Flagrant Errors in the Encyclopedia Britannica

The Mary Seacole entry in the Encyclopedia is wrong on many points. Yet the Encyclopedia Britannica, which in fact is now produced in the United States, is a widely used reference tool, so its mistakes get quoted in other sources, all the way to students’ essays. We wrote in 2014 with details, and got a reply that they would look into it. Nothing done. Another letter went in December 2021, yet again complaining of the errors. Herewith some points from the letter:


2014:

Your online article: the short description of Seacole is an exaggeration: “Jamaican nurse who cared for British soldiers at the battlefront during the Crimean War,” when her own account of battlefield forays notes only three: 18 June, 16 August and 8 September 1855.

Details on her family are also exaggerations, e.g., that her mother “provided care for invalids at her boarding house,” which she did on occasion, but her boarding house was neither a hospital nor a care facility, but a small hotel for British army and navy officers...

You exaggerate Seacole’s travels to gain nursing experience, even her gaining “further nursing experience during a cholera epidemic in Panama and after returning to Jamaica she cared for yellow fever victims, many of whom were British soldiers.” She indeed described looking after cholera victims in Panama, but also admitted to “lamentable blunders” (31).

She claimed no successes for yellow fever victims (59-63). She said that she was asked to take on the nursing (for soldiers) at an army camp, but made it clear that she did not do this (63).

You are somewhat disingenuous on Mrs Seacole being “in London in 1854 when reports of the lack of necessities and breakdown of nursing care for soldiers...began to be made public,” given that she gave her gold-mining stocks as her purpose for going there (71-74). You are wrong that “despite her experience, her offers to be sent to the front to help were refused,“ given that she entirely lacked the hospital experience required, and her (informal) offer--she never submitted an application--was rather late. Nightingale and her team had already left, and the second team was near ready to leave when Seacole decided that she, too, wanted to go.

You have her occupation correctly named as sutler, but then misrepresent her business, the British Hotel, saying that it was “to sell food, supplies and medicines to the troops.” She made it abundantly clear that the business was for officers, with only a “canteen” for the soldiery (114). She gave whole chapters to the meals prepared and parties catered for officers.

You are entirely wrong that she “assisted the wounded at the military hospitals and was a familiar figure at the transfer points for casualties from the front.” The Land Transport Corps Hospital was close to her hut, and she described going there as a visitor, taking magazines around (144). However, the nursing there was done by Nightingale’s team. Seacole could hardly have been a “familiar” figure at transfer points, since she missed the first three, major, battles of the war in 1854, and was only present for three in 1855.

“Her remedies for cholera and dysentery were particularly valued.” However, she gave precise ingredients for only one disease, cholera, and these included such toxic substances as lead acetate (sugar of lead) and mercury chloride (calomel) (31). Both promote dehydration, while the most common cause of death in cholera is heart failure, from electrolyte loss, the result of the massive diarrhea characteristic of cholera. Purging would only make it worse. The cure in use today, with excellent results, is oral rehydration therapy.

Again, you are wrong, although you have plenty of company, that Seacole “received decorations from France, England and Turkey.” Women could not receive military medals, and Seacole never claimed to have won any--although she did wear medals not her own back in London...


17 December 2021:

Dear Editors, Encyclopedia Britannica

I write (again, after a long lapse) about the many errors you have in Encyclopedia Britannica, regular, and children’s, on Mary Seacole. I did get a reply (can’t find it) that they would be looked at, but the entries are the same. The Encyclopedia is considered to be an accurate source, so it is particularly vexing to see that your coverage depends on poor secondary sources and ignores primary sources that show quite otherwise, notably Mrs Seacole’s own memoir.

Your online article: the short description of Seacole is an exaggeration: “Jamaican nurse who cared for British soldiers at the battlefront during the Crimean War,” when her own account of battlefield forays notes only three: 18 June, 16 August and 8 September 1855 (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1957, 155, 164 and 169; page numbers from the 1988 Oxford edition.

Details on her family are also exaggerations, e.g., that her mother “provided care for invalids at her boarding house,” which she did on occasion, but her boarding house was neither a hospital nor a care facility, but a small hotel for British army and navy officers. You have Seacole travelling with her husband “to the Bahamas, Haiti and Cuba,” where “she augmented her knowledge of local medicines and treatments.” However she described these trips as occurring after her husband’s death, and gave no such medical purpose (5). Again, you exaggerate her gaining “further nursing experience during a cholera epidemic in Panama and after returning to Jamaica she cared for yellow fever victims, many of whom were British soldiers.” She indeed described looking after cholera victims in Panama, but also admitted to “lamentable blunders” (31). She claimed no successes for yellow fever victims (59-63). She said that she was asked to take on the nursing (for soldiers) at an army camp, but made it clear that she did not do this (63).

You are somewhat disingenuous on Mrs Seacole being “in London in 1854 when reports of the lack of necessities and breakdown of nursing care for soldiers...began to be made public,” given that she gave her gold-mining stocks as her purpose for going there (71-74). You are wrong that “despite her experience, her offers to be sent to the front to help were refused,“ given that she entirely lacked the hospital experience required, and her (informal) offer--she never submitted an application--was rather late. Nightingale and her team had already left, and the second team was near ready to leave when Seacole decided that she, too, wanted to go.

You have her occupation correctly named as sutler, but then misrepresent her business, the British Hotel, saying that it was “to sell food, supplies and medicines to the troops.” She made it abundantly clear that the business was for officers, with only a “canteen” for the soldiery (114). She gave whole chapters to the meals prepared and parties catered for officers.

You are entirely wrong that she “assisted the wounded at the military hospitals and was a familiar figure at the transfer points for casualties from the front.” The Land Transport Corps Hospital was close to her hut, and she described going there as a visitor, taking magazines around (144). However, the nursing there was done by Nightingale’s team. Seacole could hardly have been a “familiar” figure at transfer points, since she missed the first three, major, battles of the war in 1854, and was only present for three in 1855.

“Her remedies for cholera and dysentery were particularly valued.” However, she gave precise ingredients for only one disease, cholera, and these included such toxic substances as lead acetate (sugar of lead) and mercury chloride (calomel) (31). Both promote dehydration, while the most common cause of death in cholera is heart failure, from electrolyte loss, the result of the massive diarrhea characteristic of cholera. Purging would only make it worse. The cure in use today, with excellent results, is oral rehydration therapy.

Again, you are wrong, although you have plenty of company, that Seacole “received decorations from France, England and Turkey.” Women could not receive military medals, and Seacole never claimed to have won any--although she did wear medals not her own back in London. (I give sources on this in the History Today article.)

The sources you list are also unfortunate. The “Official Site of Mary Seacole” is the site of the Seacole statue campaign, which hardly represents Seacole herself. Spartacus has removed some of its factual errors, but still is not a source to be recommended. The BBC biography website is out-of-date and erroneous. Victorian Web similarly has numerous errors (see the critical website above-noted).

Mrs Seacole was a decent person who led an adventurous life which deserves celebration. But she should not be credited with the work of Florence Nightingale. The exaggerations and myths should be removed from your entry. I note that National Geographic removed errors from its website when they were pointed out, and I urge you to do the same.

The short description in your Children’s Encyclopedia (Ages 8-11) also misrepresents her: “Mary Seacole was a Jamaican nurse who went to the Crimea...when war broke out there, determined to help the wounded soldiers. She showed great courage and earned the respect of the men fighting in the war.”

I would be happy to be in touch with an editor about this. Michael Ray seemed like an appropriate person (and there are others, but no way of contacting any of them).

Yours sincerely

Lynn McDonald, PhD, LLD (hon), professor emerita, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society

416 944-9334

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