Seacole Censorship at the Nursing Standard

While the Royal College of Nursing general magazine, the Nursing Standard, for years routinely published items on Seacole, often with exaggerated and sometimes erroneous material, it has not allowed any other point of view, even with sources! Correct sources! I made numerous attempts—typically my emails were not even answered—to get a factual article in, a factual article that was positive about Seacole for her decided merits, but which did not make untrue statements about her (non-existent) nursing career.

Finally , one was accepted, prepared for publication, illustrations selected, etc., and then cancelled! The thought police had their way.

Herewith what the Nursing Standard would not publish, despite having accepted it!

“Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale: Doctress and Nurse”

by Lynn McDonald

The Nursing Standard, the Royal College of Nursing, and many nurses, nursing organizations and unions support the honouring of Mary Seacole with a bronze statue. So do I, the director of The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale and the person who best knows Nightingale’s contribution to nursing and health care around the world. The problem is that the pro-Seacole campaign has been associated, for some persons at least, with the denigration of Nightingale and her contribution to nursing. Why? Is there not room for two women to be celebrated? Their contributions in fact were very different, as doctress and sutler (Seacole) and nurse, public health advocate and hospital reformer (Nightingale).

Seacole herself held no grudge against Nightingale. The two met probably for about five minutes, as Seacole recounted it in her 1857 memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (for which a later edition is used here: Seacole 1988). It was an entirely amicable meeting, according to Seacole (Seacole 1988 90-1). But references to it in the now copious secondary literature show Nightingale to have been variously condescending and/or racially prejudiced. Channel 4’s film, “Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea,” depicts her as disdainful and barely polite. That film is labeled “documentary,” but the encounter it portrays contradicts Seacole’s own account–the only one that exists, for Nightingale left no report of it. The use of “real angel” in the film’s title makes clear that the purpose is not merely to celebrate Seacole for her work, but to discredit Nightingale–not that she, a nurse, statistician and health care reformer, ever liked the “angel” imagery.

Seacole as “Doctress,” Before and During the Crimean War

In her memoir, Seacole described herself mainly as a “doctress” (Seacole 1988 34, 36), sometimes as “nurse and doctress” (Seacole 1988 7, 127), or “doctress and nurse” (Seacole 1988 125-6), but this with reference to meals supplied to officers, and once as

“doctress, nurse and mother” (Seacole 1988 124). In her introduction, Seacole explained that she had been trained in traditional Creole medicine by her mother, “an admirable doctress” (Seacole 1988, 2). She never called herself a “doctor” although she claimed “medicinal skills and knowledge” (Seacole 1988 24), experience of “the science of medicine” (Seacole 1988 125), and gave “surgical treatment” (Seacole 1988 40, 42). She described having done, on her own, one post-mortem examination, of a year-old infant, which gave her “useful” information, “what every medical man well knows” (Seacole 1988 30). Of course she, no more than Nightingale, ever attended a medical school, for women could not attend university at all at that time.

As a doctress Seacole diagnosed the patient, and prepared and administered the treatment herself. Whether or not her remedies worked we cannot say, for she left no precise list of ingredients or quantities. Claims her supporters make of her today, however, are unequivocally positive. One, for example, credits her with developing a medicine which “cured yellow fever and cholera and which was put to good use in Panama in 1850 when there was a yellow fever epidemic there” (Huntley 1993 43). The doctors who appeared on the Channel 4 program on Seacole also declared firmly that her treatments worked. But Seacole’s own claims of success were few–non-existent for yellow fever–while her accounts of sad deaths were numerous (Seacole 1988 59-63).

Pre-Crimea, in Cruces, Panama, where there was no doctor, Seacole explained that her “medicinal skill and knowledge were put to the test” on cholera. She examined a deceased man and pronounced cholera to be the cause of death (Seacole 1988 24). She treated a patient with “what I deemed necessary…mustard emetics, warm fomentations, mustard plasters on the stomach and the back, and calomel,” this last in diminishing doses: “I succeeded in saving my first cholera patient in Cruces” (Seacole 1988 25). But the cholera spread rapidly and there was little resistance (Seacole 1988 26). She painted a dismal picture of people who would not clean out their own huts and surroundings, and with difficulty did she get anyone to clean and ventilate (Seacole 1988 28). Some sick were beyond any care.

Seacole frankly admitted that she made “lamentable blunders” at first, and “lost patients which a little later I could have saved.” Some notes on cholera medicines which she reread later “made me shudder” (Seacole 1988 31). Treatments had to be varied, Seacole found, for “few constitutions permitted the use of exactly similar remedies,” and “the course of treatment which saved one man would, if persisted in, have very likely killed his brother” (Seacole 1988 31-2).

The best remedies for cholera, Seacole concluded, were mustard plasters, emetics, calomel, and mercury applied externally. Opium was to be avoided, for it lulled the patient into sleep and death. To thirsty patients she gave “water in which cinnamon had been boiled.” She recounted a cure achieved against a “stubborn attack” with “an additional dose,” additional to what not specified, “of ten grains of sugar of lead, mixed in a pint of water, given in doses of a tablespoonful every quarter of an hour” (Seacole 1988 31). Sugar of lead is lead acetate, a substance now considered toxic in any amount. Whether or not she continued to use lead is not known. She treated a girl by rubbing her “with warm oil, camphor and spirits of wine” (Seacole 1988 31). Clearly the occupation of “doctress” is quite different from that of a nurse, who works under the direction of a doctor, who makes the diagnosis and oversees the treatment.

Back in Jamaica in 1853, Seacole recounted a yellow fever epidemic, when she treated sufferers, “officers, their wives and children,” often from incoming ships at her boarding house (Seacole 1988 59). Her account is harrowing, but she spared the reader many “scenes of suffering and death” (Seacole 1988 60). For some victims all she could do was soothe their last moments. She made no claims of successful treatments. She next related being “sent for by the medical authorities” to provide nurses for the sick at Up-Park Camp, a mile from Kingston, “but it was little we could do to mitigate the severity of the epidemic” (Seacole 1988 63). She gave no specifics of remedies she attempted there. Altogether it is a sobering account. Yet secondary sources credit her with success.

During the Crimean War, while running the “British Hotel,” effectively a restaurant and store, Seacole continued to practise as a doctress, dispensing her herbal remedies for purchase at the store. She called her clients “patients,” but it should be noted that they were all well enough to walk in, not hospital patients.

Contrary to many secondary sources, the British Hotel was never a hospital or convalescent establishment. Seacole had first advertised the intention of establishing a “mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers” (Seacole 1988 81), but in fact there never were quarters for overnight stays. Nor was the British Hotel a “rest home,” with a canteen that served “wholesome food” (Griffon 1998 8). Unlike either a hospital or rest home, it was not open on Sundays and closed nightly at 8:00 p.m. (Seacole 1988 145).

Seacole in her memoir used “nurse” for Nightingale and her nurses, not herself (Seacole 1988 87, 89, 90). In three places she used the verb to nurse for the care she gave: (1) to her patroness and (2) to her husband in their dying days, both at home in Jamaica (Seacole 1988 5); and (3) in West Granada she nursed Mr Day “through a sharp attack of illness” (Seacole 1988 69). During the Crimean War she nursed a “boy in the Artillery with blue eyes and light golden hair,” through a “long and weary sickness” (Seacole 1988 153). In none of these instances did Seacole give details as to either the illness or the treatment.

Seacole’s Relationship with Nightingale

Nightingale’s work and reputation have been under serious attack now for thirty years, beginning with the publication of Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power (Smith 1982), followed by another book which focussed on her Crimean War work, Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel (Small 1998). The current campaign to replace Nightingale with Seacole as the “real heroine” of the Crimean War, and the real founder of nursing, builds on these two sources and the vast number of hostile secondary sources that they prompted. Refutations on Smith and Small and their major followers are available (McDonald 2000, McDonald 2001 843-47, McDonald 2005 1039-49, McDonald 2010a xii-xv, and McDonald 2010b 32-40).

Most of new editions of Seacole’s memoir contain introductions with much misinformation, both about Nightingale and Seacole. For example, in the introduction to her edition, Washington stated that Seacole was “snubbed by all the nurse-recruitment agents, by the War Office and finally by a visibly impatient Florence Nightingale.” Jealousy might have been the motive, Washington conjectured, “because Seacole’s fame at this point rivaled Florence Nightingale’s own” (Washington 2009 xiv-xv). This editor was distressed also by reading “of how Florence Nightingale rebuffed Seacole’s attempts to join her nursing teams in the Crimea and of her uncomfortable interview with Nightingale herself” (Washington 2009 xvii). But Seacole’s own depiction of the interview was friendly, not uncomfortable (Seacole 1988 90-1), and Seacole never accused Nightingale of having rejected her offer to nurse, recognizing that Nightingale had already left for the Crimean War when she, Seacole, decided she wanted to go to the war.

Washington has Seacole, pre-Crimea, following epidemics to be able to treat the victims, specifically following cholera to Cuba, so that, “along the way,” she “gained expertise in treating dysentery, yellow fever and other dreaded tropical diseases as well” (Washington 2009 xiii). But Seacole’s memoir says nothing of the kind, mentioning Cuba only in passing, namely that, after acquiring shells and shell work in the Bahamas, which sold well back in Jamaica, “I visited also Hayti and Cuba” (Seacole 1988 5).

A number of sources claim that Seacole set up hospitals or nursing stations in the Crimean War, variously at the British Hotel or elsewhere. A military historian claimed that she “set up a rough and ready nursing station” (Royle 2000 257). Another author has Seacole taking teams of nurses to the battlefield to nurse soldiers on the spot (Barnham 2002 24-5).

The entry on Seacole by the National Library of Jamaica has her building a “hotel for invalids.” It also gives a positive account of Seacole’s skills “when yellow fever raged all over Jamaica” despite Seacole’s own acknowledgment of being unable to help mitigate it (Seacole 1988 59-63).

Nightingale, in contrast with Seacole, saw the nurse as the person who carried out the doctor’s medical instructions, at a time when few women had even the equivalent of a high school education, and none had a university education. Seacole worked independently, using the traditional Creole medicine taught her by her mother. Some sources, however, treat Seacole as being on the same professional footing as doctors, a claim Nightingale would never have made. In a foreword to Wonderful Adventures, referring to Seacole’s time in Cruces, Panama, the editor called her the “only trained medical professional” (Washington 2009 xiii). The major biography on Seacole calls her “a mixture of doctor, apothecary and entrepreneur” (Robinson 2005 141).

There is simply no evidence that doctors treated Seacole as a doctor. The official report on the Crimean War hospitals lists referrals from the regimental hospitals to the general hospitals, with no mention of any referrals to Seacole (Smith 1858, vol. 1). Doctors who wrote memoirs on their war experiences do not refer to her as a medical colleague. Dr George Lawson, for example, described her store at Kadikoi, and her giving hot tea to soldiers waiting to board ship: “Mrs Seacole was in fact one of the many sutlers or camp followers who sold goods (mostly food and drink) to the troops, and who followed the Army on every campaign, appearing in the most unlikely places” (Bonham-Carter 1868 157). A British doctor with the Turkish Army called her a sutler who kept a store at Kadikoi, two or three miles from British headquarter, where, in an emergency, one could obtain some kind of a meal (Buzzard 1915 179).

In her memoir, Seacole herself described the limits placed on her by the doctors, when she was took tea, lemonade and sponge cake to soldiers waiting at the wharf for transport to the general hospitals, “all the doctors would allow me to give to the wounded” (Seacole 1988 101). A medical historian of the Crimean War said that the doctors knew her well and, although they thought her rather a quack, they were appreciative of her good works (Shepherd 1991 2:507).

Misinformation on Seacole’s Recognition in Medals

A popular misrepresentation is that Seacole was recognized at the time for her heroism and work, by being decorated with medals, the accounts ranging from three or four–Britain and France, plus Sardinia or Turkey or both; some that she may even have received a medal from the enemy, Russia (Washington 2009 xvi). The website of the National Portrait Gallery credits her with having been awarded three, the British Crimean medal, the Turkish Medjidie, and the French Legion of Honour, adding that “Mary Seacole was known to have received these honours” (National Portrait Gallery). The Channel 4 documentary awards her “four government medals” (Bruce 2005). Yet a major biographer of Seacole, who sought assiduously to verify these claims, could find no documentation for any of them, and concluded that it was “more likely that Mary ‘distinguished’ herself” with the medals (Robinson 2005 167). (The names of recipients of the French Légion d’Honneur can be easily checked online atégion_d’honneur_recipients_by_name.)

The statue proposed as a Seacole memorial is to display “her medals, of which she was proud…pinned to her chest” (Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal 2011). The National Library of Jamaica also incorrectly credits Seacole having been presented with the Crimean medal, which she “always wore on her dress” (National Library of Jamaica).

A publication of the Guy’s-St Thomas’ Trust asserts wrongly that Seacole received “four medals including the Crimean Medal and the Légion d’Honneur” (Sorensen 2011 2.1). This document also falsely asserts that Seacole “gave her life’s work” in the support of early nursing, although it names not one instance of such a contribution. Moreover, in her memoir, Seacole describes two early trips to England, the first when she stayed for a year, the second for two years, for neither of which did she mention any nursing. On the second she earned her livelihood by selling West Indian preserves and pickles (Seacole 1988 4).

Racial Slurs in Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole

In addition to Seacole being given the positive attributes of Nightingale, especially of her work to improve the life of ordinary soldiers, when the British Hotel largely served officers, Nightingale has been given Seacole’s besetting sin, a frequent use of racist language and even racial slurs. That Seacole did not identify with her African forebears has only reluctantly been acknowledged by some authors (Robinson 2005 172), who also noted the frequent, negative aspersions Seacole made to blacks and “niggers.” A careful read of Wonderful Adventures will show that Seacole did not once refer to herself as black, but all references to blacks are to others, often to her own servants (Seacole 1988 12, 19, 21, 37, 39, 45, 58, 66, 113, 138, 180), as are also references to “negroes” (42-4, 50-2, 69) and “niggers” (20, 45). Additionally, there are “good-for-nothing black cooks” (141) and a “grinning black” (38). In Panama Seacole described natives’ fare of roasted monkey “whose grilled head bore a strong resemblance to a negro baby’s,” while from a stew made of monkey meat your ladle could bring up what “closely resembled a brown baby’s limb” (69).

At the British Hotel she employed “Jew Johnny” (Seacole 1988 92, 104, 113) and had to deal with Greeks who were “craven” and “villainous-looking” (106) or “cunning-eyed” (86), while Turks were “the degenerate descendants of the fierce Arabs” and “deliberate, slow and indolent” (Seacole 1988 106, 109). Yet, despite these (and other) examples, authors attribute racism to Nightingale. Wilson, for example, asserted that she rejected Seacole’s services “on racialist grounds,” whereupon Seacole “nursed the sick the front line of battle” and whose hotel “provided the men with home cooking” (Wilson 2002 178).

Seacole, as a person of mixed race, herself suffered from racial discrimination, on the part of Americans much more than Britons, according to her memoir. It reports two flagrant instances pre-Crimea, to both of which she rose admirably. In the first, an American man called her, in a toast, a “yaller woman,” but not entirely black, so that she could be admitted into their company with “bleaching.” Seacole declined the bleach job, and declared that if her skin were as “dark as any nigger’s, I should have been just as happy and as useful and as much respected by those whose respect I value.” She drank a toast to “the general reformation of American manners” (Seacole 1988 48). In the second incident, American white women refused to let her into the ladies’ salon on an American ship returning to Kingston from Panama; she went to the captain, got her fare back, and returned without incident on a British ship (Seacole 1988 58).

The Memorial Statue for St Thomas’ Hospital

The statue of Seacole planned for St Thomas’ Hospital is to be 3 metres high, taller than those honouring Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell elsewhere in London (Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal 2011). Not only will her (fictional) medals be displayed, Seacole is to be shown alone, on foot, carrying a medical bag to the front. Yet her own memoir describes her expeditions quite differently. As a sutler she went with food and drink to sell as well as first aid supplies: “sandwiches…fowl, tongue, ham, wine, spirits,” all packed on two mules. How many people went with her she did not say, but she took her “steadiest lad” to look after the mules; she rode on horseback. With these supplies she also took the “large bag I always carried into the field slung across my shoulder with lint, bandages, needles, thread and medicines” (Seacole 1988 156).

It is no coincidence that the nursing union Unison, a major supporter of the Seacole statue campaign, has since 1999 also been campaigning against Nightingale. At the Unison meeting which unanimously voted to “ditch” Nightingale as the symbol of nursing, health visitor Wendy Wheeler argued that nurses must “start to exorcise the myth of Florence Nightingale” (BBC Online News 1999), perhaps oblivious to the reality that Nightingale did more than anyone else to found the modern profession of nursing, took up health and occupational health and safety of nurses, was a successful hospital reformer and had a vision of public health care, much of which she saw achieved, as early as 1864.

Wheeler added that “Florence Nightingale believed nurses should be subordinate to doctors,” a frequent statement, which assumes equal relations with doctors to have been possible. In the early 1850s, when Nightingale began to reform nursing, nurses at St Bartholomew’s Hospital were housed in “wooden cages” on the landings–Nightingale always argued for private rooms for nurses. Hospital “nurses” in civil hospitals at the time were mainly cleaners (exceptionally, a doctor would give informal training to a “nurse” who would then look after his patients). Army nurses were recruited from among the wives of private soldiers and non-commissioned officers, reported to a sergeant, and were paid less than a cook or laundress (Smith 1929 11-14); they did not so much as speak to a doctor.

When Nightingale set to work, nursing was not a profession at all, but an occupation of ill repute. Women were not then allowed in any university in the UK, and few had the equivalent of a high school education. To have called for these women to be on an equal footing with well-educated men doctors would have ensured that no hospital would have taken them. Nightingale began where women were, with apprenticeship-style training. Literacy was the only requirement for admission to her school, and occasionally a woman was admitted who could not read or write.

It is ironical that the nursing union keen on “ditching” Nightingale has its new headquarters in the renovated Hospital for Women, founded by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, on Euston Road. Nightingale advised on the plan for the hospital (the initial version made it impossible to nurse adequately, she thought), supported the fund raising for the hospital with a letter to the Times and herself contributed £50 to the fund (McDonald 2005 63-66).


Anionwu E (5 October 2010) A History that Lives on, Nursing Standard 26,5 18-19.

Barnham K (2002) Florence Nightingale: The Lady of the Lamp. White-Thomson, Lewes.

BBC Online News (27 April 1999) Nurses ditch Florence Nightingale image. London.

Bonham-Carter V (Ed) (1868) Surgeon in the Crimea: The Experiences of George Lawson Recorded in Letters to his Family 1854-55 Constable, London.

Bruce A (Dir) (2005) Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea. Channel 4, London.

Buzzard T (1915) With the Turkish Army in the Crimea and Asia Minor: A Personal Narrative. John Murray, London.

Griffon, D (1998) “A Somewhat Duskier Skin”: Mary Seacole in the Crimea.” Nursing History Review 6 115-27.

Huntley E (1993) Two Lives: Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. Bogle-L’Ouverture, London.

Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal 2011

Mary Seacole (1805-1881) Biographies of Jamaican Personalities. National Library of Jamaica.

McDonald L (December 6 2000) Florence Nightingale Revealed in her own Writings, Times Literary Supplement 14-15.

McDonald L (2001) Appendix B, The Rise and Fall of Florence Nightingale’s Reputation, in McDonald, L (Ed) Florence Nightingale: An Introduction to her Life and Family (Waterloo. Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo ON.

McDonald L (2005) (Ed) Florence Nightingale on Women, Medicine, Midwifery and Prostitution Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo ON.

McDonald L (2010a) Florence Nightingale at First Hand. Continuum, London.

McDonald L (Ed) (2010b) Florence Nightingale: The Crimean War. Wilfrid Laurier, Waterloo ON.

National Portrait Gallery website.

Robinson J (2005) Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea. Constable, London.

Royle T (2000) Crimea: The Great Crimean War 1854-1856. Little Brown, New York.

Seacole M (1988) Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. Oxford University, Oxford.

Small H (1998) Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel. Constable, London.

Smith A (1858) Medical and Surgical History of the British Army which served in Turkey and the Crimea. 2 vols. Harrison, London.

Smith F (1929) A Short History of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Gale & Polden, Aldershot.

Smith FB (1982) Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power. Croom Helm, London

Sorenson K (20 July 2011) Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Update, Guy’s-St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London.

Washington H (2009) Foreword. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (Ed) Harriet Washington. Kaplan.

Wilson A The Victorians (2002) Arrow, London.

McDonald, Lynn, PhD, LLD (hon)
University Professor Emerita
Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Guelph
Guelph ON N1G 2W1

519 824-4120 ext 53403
fax 519 837-9561
h: 416 944-9334

An Historical Overview of Nursing and New Directions in Nursing

Marilyn Klainberg’s Historical Overview of Nursing (Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett) lists Mary Seacole, with incorrect dates, as the next person after Nightingale as influential in nursing, crediting her falsely with working in cholera and yellow fever epidemics in Cuba and Panama, and establishing a “hospital and respite home for wounded and fatigued soldiers in Balaclava”

Another exaggerated account of Seacole’s Crimean experience is by Julia Hallam, “Ethnic Lines in the Early Nineteenth Century,” in a collection edited by the two archivists at the Royal College of Nursing, Barbara Mortimer and Susan McGann, New Directions in the History of Nursing: International Perspectives (London: Routledge 2005 22-39). Hallam gets the timing and purpose wrong for Seacole’s trip (p 34): “At the outbreak of war in 1853, Seacole sailed from Jamaica to England to offer her services to the Nightingale cause,” except that while Turkey declared war in 1853, the British did not until March 1854, and the first battle did not take place until September. Mrs Seacole was in the Panama running a business supplying men going to the California Gold Rush, and herself prospecting and investing in gold. It was only after the first three major battles took place, and a great storm destroyed British supplies, that she decided to abandon her gold stocks and seek to go to the Crimea (according to her own memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands).

“Unable to secure an appointment as a nurse, she undertook to finance her own trip to the front….She set up the equivalent of an officers’ mess for the wealthier soldiers in the Crimea.”
Nightingale and her team had already left when Seacole decided she wanted to join them. She obviously did not secure employment as a nurse, but then she never submitted the requisite application. The trip she financed to the front, from her Panama profits, was to establish a “mess table” for officers, not soldiers, none of whom were wealthy enough to purchase fine wines, champagne, tinned lobster and salmon.

“When the war ended abruptly in March 1856, Seacole was left with expensive redundant stock.”
The war did not end abruptly in March; the last battle was fought on 8 September 1855, so that there were months before the peace treaty was finally signed. Her business did very well all this time–she and her partner laid in expensive supplies expecting the army to stay longer than it did–a poor business decision, not an abrupt end to the war.

Brighton, Terry. Hell Riders: The Truth about the Charge of the Light Brigade. Viking 2004 303-15

This is a recent book on the Light Brigade, which includes a chapter (19) devoted to “The truth about Scutari,” which makes an enormous number of factual errors about Seacole’s role during the Crimean War.

By way of background the author credited her with care for yellow fever victims “so effective…that she was asked to take charge of all nursing at Up-Park Camp, the Kingston headquarters of the British Army in Jamaica,” although Seacole reported not one successful case, and in any event never took charge of any nursing at the camp.

Early in the Crimean War, according to Brighton, Seacole was said to have “supplied written references from British officers in Kingston describing her nursing skills and supreme fitness for the work. All refused her offer.” But Seacole’s memoir gives details of only one letter, from a mining camp doctor, which does not mention nursing skills at all (WA 77). The U.K. National Archives has the written applications by nurses, but there is not one from Seacole. When she finally got to Scutari, this account has her still hoping “to be recruited to work as a nurse there,” although Seacole herself made it clear that she was then en route to Balaclava to start her business and was no longer looking for a job.

Brighton changed Seacole’s real business of providing food and drink to officers into providing “accommodation, food and nursing care for any soldier in need.” Her “ward was open to the wounded, those suffering from the diseases rampant in Balaclava and those who were simply exhausted. Whenever a new patient arrived she would rush to the door calling, ‘Who is my new son?’” (311). But this expression appears in Soyer’s memoir, on his meeting her, when she was serving champagne to Sir John Campbell.

After many other errors, the author flagged her “greatest accomplishment” as being ”in the sick ward” (which did not exist) and “on the battlefield at Balaclava” (314), although she missed the Battle of Balaclava by months. He concluded that she was the “true nursing heroine for the Light Brigade,” although Nightingale should not be forgotten. A statue of Seacole should be erected at the “Crimean War monument” alongside that of Nightingale’s (314).

Fryer, Peter. “Mary Seacole.” Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto 1984. 246-52.

The Seacole chapter repeats the standard myths that she had excellent testimonials for a Crimea post (247), but was turned away by Nightingale’s assistant (248). It gives a purely fictional daily schedule: “Mary Seacole was generally up and busy by daybreak, serving breakfast to off-duty troops, caring for the sick and wounded able to make their own way to her hut, visiting the military hospital with books and papers, mending torn uniforms.” (249-50).

It has here “awarded a Crimean medal,” for which the evidence is that an officer who had known her in the Crimea saw her wearing it in London” (252). She did wear medals, but they were not awarded to her.

Palmer, Alan, “Seacole [née Grant] Mary Jane nurse.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The Seacole entry is far from the worst of the misinformed sources on Seacole, and avoids such myths as the claim that she won medals. (However, it depicts her wearing 4 medals (in a photography of the Gleichen bust), without noting that they were not hers.) It manufactured a “good, clean canteen for the troops,” although Seacole never gave any specifics for the canteen apart from mentioning its existence. The entry accords her nursing skills from her mother, which Seacole did not herself claim. He credits her with having “briefly” acted as “nursing superintendent at Up-Park miliary camp,” when Seacole rather stated that she had been asked to supply nurses there, but did not (111).

MacQueen, Joyce. Book review of George Cadogan, ed. Mary Seacole: Jamaican Nightingale, Margaret Allemang Centre for the History of Nursing. No. 9 (December 1990).

This review of an early reprint of Wonderful Adventures repeats many errors: (1) that Seacole “set up a successful inn just outside Sebastopol at the battlefront,” paid for out of her “life savings”; (2) that “her raison d’être was caring for the sick and wounded”; (3) a wholly fictional schedule, claiming that Seacole “saw patients from about 9:30 to noon every day, visited the hospital over the noon hour and spent the afternoon caring for the newly wounded,” although where the “newly wounded” came from is a mystery, for Seacole missed the first three battles, and was only present for three later ones.

A remarkable false claim, according to MacQueen, Seacole’s “humanitarian work was recognized by Turkey and France, but never by the British government,” for which she gave no evidence. The review ends with a pot shot at Nightingale: “In this delightful book Seacole comes across as a welcome antidote to our overdose of Nightingale.”

Anionwu, Elizabeth. “Mary Seacole: Nursing Care in Many Lands.” British Journal of Healthcare Assistants 6,5 (May 2012):244-48.

Anionwu in this article claims Seacole as a “pioneer” equivalent to (244). She acknowledged that her hut was mainly a store and canteen, but invented “each morning a type of nurse-led outpatient clinic.” Here “soldiers queued for her to prescribe remedies and dress their wounds” (247), although Seacole herself related only sporadic calls for her to leave her kitchen to sell remedies. As for the “wounds,” how did the soldiers get them? Seacole missed the three first, major, battles. She was present for three later ones, and described giving first aid assistance on the spot, not dressing wounds days later at her hut.

Anionwu’s claims go on to Seacole visiting sick and injured soldiers “in their huts,” without giving an example, and certainly Seacole never did (she did describe visits to the huts of high ranking officers). She is said to have ignored the dangers, to care ”for the wounded and dying on the battlefields” (247), although Seacole’s own description is decidedly less heroic. Anionwu makes Seacole a victim of the war ending “abruptly” (247), although more than six months elapsed between the last battle and the signing of the peace treaty.

There are also numerous trivial factual errors (typos?) such as misdating the Crimean War (246). A supposed letter by the principal medical officer, John Hall, is cited as if it were genuine (248).

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Historical Encyclopedia of Nursing. Santa Barbara: ABC Clio 1999 Seacole, Mary Jane 235-37.

The entry on Mary Seacole in Historical Encyclopedia of Nursing has an enormous number of mistakes, including wild claims for Seacole and an accusation of racism against Elizabeth Herbert, although not Nightingale. Herewith some examples:

She was an “outstanding” example of a “determined nurse at the Crimean front,” and a “British citizen” and a “combat nurse” (137).

In Jamaica she is said to have “battled an epidemic of yellow fever” (236) although she admitted total defeat and hardly any battle. Oddly, a claim made by no one else, “she advised a surgeon who gave up European medicine to adopt herbal remedies developed from Caribbean plants” (236) without naming him or citing any reference.

On arrival at Balaclava she is said to have worked “for six weeks rebandaging, comforting and offering pannikins of broth” (236), a far cry from her own account of providing tea, lemonade and cake (WA )

She is said to have “ventured regularly to the front for the Battle of Tchernaya” (237) although that took place on one day only.

The entry confuses Seacole’s meals and catering for officers, for a price, for their dinner parties and sporting events, with sickroom care of soldiers: “For her patients, she cooked and distributed sickroom delicacies–sponge cake, blancmange, broth, jelly and sherry” (237).

Yet again Seacole is awarded medals: the Crimean Medal “for bravery under fire,” plus the French Legion of Honor, and a Turkish honorarium” (237).

Minor errors have her avoid bankruptcy through donations from friends, and her book producing “an adequate income” (237).

Oxford Companion to Black British History

The entry on Seacole in the Oxford Companion to Black British History is relatively accurate, but even it has such misinformation as Seacole sailing to London to apply to nurse in the Crimean War, ”expecting a grateful welcome,” when her own memoir is clear that she left for London from Panama, for the purpose of attending to her gold stocks (WA 74). The entry has Seacole unequivocally volunteering, unsuccessfully, “to nurse victims of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and the Franco-Prussian War in 1871,” although evidence of her actually volunteering for either is scant–and indirect–while the salient fact that the British government sent nurses to neither and never called for any is not mentioned.

The Path We Tread: Blacks in Nursing Worldwide 1854-1995

The section on Seacole in The Path We Tread: Blacks in Nursing Worldwide 1854-1995 is one of the most flagrantly wrong, with amazing concoctions and contradictions. Almost every sentence contains misinformation, doubtless by ignoring what Seacole herself wrote of her work and contact with Nightingale. The Crimean War section simply asserts that Seacole was a nurse there, and suggests that there may have been other black nurses. There is no acknowledgement anywhere that Seacole was of mixed race and did not consider herself black. Major mis-statements include claims of cures she never made, the erection of a hospital ward she never described, a letter Seacole wrote the British government before leaving Jamaica, and a letter of introduction to Nightingale that she took with her to England–all of them impossible given the actual sequence of events.

“When Mary Seacole learned that hostilities had broken out in the Crimea, she wrote the British government asking to be allowed to join Florence Nightingale in the Crimea as a nurse, but her request was denied” (3). Seacole only decided she wanted to go after the third major battle of the war.

“She was convinced that her knowledge of tropical diseases was vital to Britain’s war effort. So, at her own expense, Mary Seacole sailed to England with a letter of introduction to Nightingale.” However, Seacole’s own account has her sailing to England from Panama, to look after her gold mining stocks (WA 74).

“but her attempts to join the group of recruited nurses were blocked because she was black, even though she had personal credentials written by British army doctors” (3) Her memoir contains no letter by British doctors, but one from the “late medical officer West Granada, Gold mining Company” (WA 77). It is not known why her attempt to join the second group of nurses was rebuffed; the fact that she never applied in the prescribed way, and that the group was already in the last stages of preparation for departure, with 40 women ready to go, may well have been the factors.

(After arriving and building “The British Hotel”): “On the lower floor was a restaurant and bar,; the upper floor was arranged like a hospital ward with her supply of medicines, many of which she concocted herself” (3), contrary to her own account that the store/restaurant/bar were in a hut, and there never was a hospital ward. What medicines she used can scarcely be known, except that she bought them in England. She did not describe concocting her own medicines.

“Seacole still hoped to secure a position as an army nurse, but when she met with Florence Nightingale, the response was the same, no vacancies. However, each night at 7:00, after having worked in her provisions store on the outskirts of the camp, she made her way to the hospital and worked as a volunteer side-by-side with Nightingale” (4). Seacole’s own description of meeting has her asking for a bed for the night, not a job (WA 91), as she already had made her plans to start a business. She could hardly have worked each night side-by-side with Nightingale, who was based at Scutari, some 300 miles from the Crimea–it took often a week by boat to make the journey.

“Seacole attended not only the British casualties, but French, Sardinian and Russian soldiers as well. She saved the lives of countless soldiers, both those wounded and others with cholera, yellow fever, malaria, diarrhea, and a host of other ailments” (4). Yet she could not have attended many casualties, because she missed the first three battles of the war; she was present for three later ones, when she described assisting on the battlefield, probably for several hours each. Her account notes helping several injured French, Sardinian and Russian officers, not many, and of course none of them ill, for she worked in no army hospital. There was no yellow fever or malaria to treat there (and when she faced yellow fever in Jamaica, Seacole admitted being able to do nothing).

Finally there is a claim about medals: “Long after the war ended, the government bestowed a medal upon her for services rendered the sick and injured” (4), with no documentation provided. Seacole never claimed to have won any medals, and the medals claimed for her were service medals given to the military only. That “two of her Crimean War medals” are at the Institute of Jamaica” (4) is a mis-statement, for while that institute owns two such medals, there is no documentation to say whose they were.

Jane Robinson’s Biography

Jane Robinson’s biography of Seacole contains a great deal of well researched information, and a relatively small amount of misinformation. Clearly Robinson went to a great deal of trouble to find sources to validate the new revised Seacole, and frankly reported instances where no information could be found, such as the claim that she won medals. There are slurs against Nightingale, short of outright denunciations. The publisher’s advertisement for the book, however, refers (erroneously) to Nightingale calling Seacole “a brothel-keeping quack.”

The biography appears online with three different titles, all with the same ISBN number: (1) Mary Seacole: The Black Woman Who Invented Modern Nursing (New York: Carroll & Graf 2004); (2) Mary Seacole: The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age (Basic Books 2004) and (3) Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea (London: Constable 2005). No book with the extraordinary first title actually appeared.

Robinson was frank in describing Seacole’s negative views of blacks (172-73). She reported on the failure of her second business, the store at Aldershot, after the Crimean War (157).

She tried to verify that the medals Seacole wore had been awarded to her, to find that they had not been (167).

However, Robinson’s account of Seacole managing “a professional nursing service for the British Army” in Jamaica (72) contradicts Seacole’s own version, which states rather that she was “sent for by the medical authorities to provide nurses for the sick at Up-Park Camp, about a mile from Kingston,” but that only she went, while her sister and nurses stayed at her boarding house in Kingston. Seacole said that she did her “best,” but there was little they could do “to mitigate the severity of the epidemic” (63). This was the terrible yellow fever epidemic, which Seacole described in sad detail in Chapter 7, and for which she made no claims of cures.