Published in the Times Literary Supplement, December 6, 2013, pp14-15, with replies in three subsequent issues

Wonderful adventures: How did Mary Seacole come to be viewed as a pioneer of modern nursing?

Lynn McDonald

The Jamaican “doctress” Mary Seacole (1805–81) was celebrated again in Britain during Black History Month, and indeed 2013 has been a vintage year for her. After speculation, in December 2012, that she would be dropped from England’s National Curriculum, a campaign was launched to keep her in. The pressure group Operation Black Vote was prominent and the media were sympathetic. A petition circulated and did well. In January 2013, some eighty-nine MPs signed an Early Day Motion (No 919) to reinstate Seacole. The points made come from Seacole campaigners of the past thirty years. “That this House is aware of history which records the many heroic and compassionate acts carried out unselfishly by renowned war nursing heroine Mary Seacole for innumerable wounded soldiers injured on the Crimean War’s bloody battlefields.” The MPs also noted the “further recognition of her contribution shortly to be revealed by the unveiling of a large bronze statue in her memory to be erected in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital facing the Houses of Parliament”.

The records of history referred to in the motion do not exist. Mary Seacole was not a nurse, nor claimed to be so in her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857. She could hardly have treated “innumerable wounded soldiers” on the battlefields, for the simple reason that she missed the first three, major, battles of the war. Mrs Seacole was busy in London attending to her gold mining stocks when those bloody battles took place. It was not until late November 1854, according to her memoir, that Seacole decided to drop her business speculations to go to the war.

She did not arrive in the Crimea until March 1855, when conditions were getting better, thanks to the work of the Sanitary and Supply Commissions sent by the British government, which arrived at about the same time. She had tried to get a position as a nurse with the second group to be recruited, but even its plans were well along when she began. She never submitted the required written application (hundreds of them are available at the National Archives, Kew). She then formulated Plan B with a relative of her late husband, to set up a hotel, which turned out to be a combination of shop, restaurant, bar, takeaway and catering service instead. She arranged for the purchase and delivery of supplies. Enroute to Balaclava, she dropped in at the Scutari Barrack Hospital, where she had, according to her memoir, a short chat with Florence Nightingale (who had herself arrived just in time to nurse the wounded of the third battle, Inkerman), an encounter that she described in entirely friendly terms. She did not then ask for a job as a nurse, but only for a bed for the night, as her passage was booked and her supplies on the way.

Mrs Seacole was unselfish, and she did many good deeds during the war, but seldom on the battlefield. Her memoir rather describes her taking two mule-loads of food and drink for spectators, venturing onto the field when things cooled down (the battles only lasted a few hours). The customers at her shop for remedies were all walk-ins, and what was in those remedies she did not say. According to memoirs from the time, men went to her mainly for “preventives” and for mild problems like stomach aches. The most serious cases went to Nightingale’s general hospitals; the less serious to the local regimental hospitals. Mrs Seacole sometimes treated sports injuries, for most of her time in the Crimea was after the fall of Sebastopol, and the effective end of the war. Business boomed that winter and spring of 1855–6. Dinner parties, horse races and excursions brought her customers.

The Early Day Motion also repeats the frequently repeated fiction that Seacole went to the Crimean War for the purpose of establishing a centre to treat the wounded. However, her own memoir makes clear that the purpose was a business to serve officers. There was also a canteen for soldiers, but the main action was in “Mrs Seacole’s hut”. A full three chapters of her memoir goes to describing the menus, takeaways (tinned lobster and salmon) and events she catered for.

The bankruptcy referred to in the Early Day Motion was the result of a bad business decision by Seacole and her partner. Understandably, they expanded their stock when they were doing well. The expensive wines and cheeses they brought in could not be sold at a decent price when the peace treaty was finally signed, in March 1856, and troops and their officers went home. The motion noted that Seacole’s efforts had “rightly become part of the nation’s schools education curriculum”. However, even at foundation schools the content of this curriculum is faulty. For example, the website of the History Department at Folkestone School for Girls gives a link for GCSE students to a revision document called “Medicine Through Time”. This asks “How Did Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole Improve Public Health?”. It praises Nightingale, but chides her for paying “little notice to Pasteur’s germ theory”, some years before anyone ever heard of it.

Seacole is turned into another “influential nurse”, busy on that battlefield. On her return, “Nobody tried to learn from her medical skills due to her race”. What medical skills, it does not say. In fact, for cholera, the only disease for which Seacole gave specific ingredients, she was wrong, although no worse than many doctors of the time. That is, she/they used toxic substances such as lead acetate and mercury chloride, emetics and purgatives (numerous articles recommend all such in the Lancet and other medical journals and textbooks). Alas, the ingredients they used cause dehydration, while the now known effective treatment for cholera is oral rehydration therapy.

Waldegrave School for Girls, Twickenham, boasts a “Mary Seacole House”, with a web page that both glorifies Seacole and denigrates Nightingale. Seacole, as usual, is unquestionably a “nurse” who went to the war, now because she knew “more than most about wounds and infection control”, not a claim she ever made. Nightingale “turned her down”, it incorrectly states, again contrary to Seacole’s own account. Seacole is said to have treated wounded soldiers “from both sides” under fire on the battlefield. In her memoir, however, she described one occasion only on which she assisted “several” Russians, one of whom bit her in dying, while the other gave her a ring for her kindness. She was indeed kind, and not only by her own account. But her memoir gives more attention to looting the bodies of dead Russians than helping wounded ones. She took home souvenirs, such as buttons she clipped off soldiers’ coats, and a Madonna stolen from a Sebastopol church.

How did it happen that a person who called herself a “doctress”, meaning a herbalist, not a nurse, and who identified herself as “brunette” or “yellow”, indicating a fair complexion, became a “black British nurse”? How did this woman, who wrote chapters about the meals and drinks she served officers, come to be credited with providing accommodation, food and nursing care for ordinary soldiers? How were her three excursions onto the battlefield after the fighting, to sell food and drink, and give first aid on the side, magnified into saving “innumerable” lives under bombardment?

First of all, enthusiasts with such an agenda have to get the misinformation into print and onto websites – to stake a claim, as it were. Next, there has to be some incentive to take them up on it. Long-standing guilt for past offences against ethnic minorities can account for that. White Britons have much to feel guilty about: promoting Mrs Seacole perhaps serves as atonement. The key to gaining wide acceptance of erroneous claims is endorsement by reputable individuals and institutions. The “black British nurse” designation first appeared almost thirty years ago in an editorial in the peer-reviewed Journal of Advanced Nursing by a respected editor, James P. Smith (September 1984). And while the Royal College of Nursing started neither the Seacole-adulation nor the Nightingale-bashing, it took both on. Its journal, the Nursing Standard, publishes pro-Seacole material frequently, and, by editorial policy, does not accept critical articles, or even send them out for peer review. It, and other magazines, use pictures of Seacole wearing medals she never earned, which tacitly makes the case that she did. One might expect that the National Portrait Gallery would exercise due diligence in planning its exhibits and website material. On Seacole, however, not so. It was appropriately pleased with its purchase of a fine, long-lost portrait of Seacole, by a little-known artist, Albert Challen. However, the portrait also shows Seacole wearing three medals, none of which she won, a fact omitted from all the material put out on her. Yet Seacole herself never claimed to have been given those medals, and her portrait on the cover of her memoir shows not one. She admitted a desire to be a war heroine, without ever claiming to have been one.

The Seacole portrait with medals soon made its way into plaques in public buildings. No fewer than six British universities have Mary Seacole buildings, four of them healthcare faculties (Wolverhampton, Greenwich, Brunel and Salford), one a library (Birmingham City) and one a research centre (De Montfort). At the opening of these buildings, and sometimes on plaques displayed in them, Seacole is called a pioneer nurse. But no university authority would say what she pioneered, any more than the Department of Health would (I asked).

There is remarkable agreement among the different political parties on the merits of Mary Seacole as nurse, pioneer and role model, on which all of them are wrong. When the first Mary Seacole nursing awards were announced, in 1994, the Secretary of State for health, the Conservative Brian Mawhinney, credited her with “considerable”, but as usual unspecified, “nursing skills”, and added another non-fact: that she had nursed “in and around London” after the Crimean War, at what hospitals he did not mention. None is known of. The promotion of Mary Seacole to “health care pioneer”, in 2012, was the work of another Conservative administration, with Jeremy Hunt as minister. The chair of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal is a former Labour MP and peer, Lord Soley. The primary sponsor of the Early Day Motion to keep Seacole in the National Curriculum was a Labour MP, Alan Meale, with co-sponsors Conservative, Democratic Unionist and Independent; sixty-three of the eighty-nine signatories were Labour MPs.

Not the least of the ill consequences of the inordinate focus on Seacole is the loss of attention to genuine black nursing pioneers. A fine example is Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (1910–93), who was probably the first black nurse in the NHS in 1948. Mrs Pratt was Nigerian born and raised, and proud of her African roots. She trained at the Nightingale School at St Thomas’ Hospital, did a midwifery certificate and worked in London hospitals before returning home. She experienced racial discrimination in both the UK and Nigeria, from a patient in the NHS who had never seen a black nurse before, and a white medical chief in Nigeria, who would not appoint her to the supervisory position for which he acknowledged she was qualified. She influenced the patient for the better, while the medical administrator was sent packing when Nigeria became independent in 1960 and Nigerians began to replace British nationals in senior posts. Mrs Pratt was the first Nigerian matron of University Hospital, Ibadan, then the first Nigerian chief nursing officer for her country. She was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing, and given an honorary doctorate in Nigeria. There is a full biography of her. Why no Kofoworola Pratt award?

Mary Seacole, although never the “black British nurse” she is claimed to have been, was a successful, mixed-race immigrant to Britain. She led an adventurous life, and her memoir of 1857 is still a lively read. She was kind and generous. She made friends of her customers, army and navy officers, who came to her rescue with a fund when she was declared bankrupt. While her cures have been vastly exaggerated, she doubtless did what she could to ease suffering, when no effective cures then existed. In epidemics pre-Crimea, she said a comforting word to the dying and closed the eyes of the dead. During the Crimean War, probably her greatest kindness was to serve hot tea and lemonade to cold, suffering soldiers awaiting transport to hospital on the wharf at Balaclava. She deserves much credit for rising to the occasion, but her tea and lemonade did not save lives, pioneer nursing or advance health care.

Reply by Hugh Small, and further replies by Lynn McDonald and Hannah Gay

Mary Seacole (TLS, 13 December 2013)

Sir, – Lynn McDonald’s citation of memorials which refer to Mary Seacole as a “pioneer nurse” (Commentary, December 6) does not support her argument that Seacole has come to be viewed as a “pioneer of modern nursing”, which is different. In criticizing Brian Mawhinney for not being able to name Seacole’s London hospitals McDonald equates “modern” with hospital nursing. But Florence Nightingale’s contemporaneous Notes on Nursing was aimed at convincing women to nurse patients at home and was scathing about hospitals and their nurses. Seacole’ s activities after the Crimean War are poorly documented, but there is evidence that she worked for the sickly Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, who (like any non-pauper) would not have dreamt of running the risks of a hospital.

McDonald asks how Seacole’s battlefield work has been “magnified into saving ‘innumerable’ lives under bombardment”, apparently misunderstanding the Early Day Motion which she cites as recording only “heroic and compassionate acts carried out unselfishly by renowned war nursing heroine Mary Seacole for innumerable wounded soldiers”. Quoting the EDM more literally, McDonald says that Seacole arrived in the Crimea in March 1855 and “could hardly have treated ‘innumerable wounded soldiers’ on the battlefields for the simple reason that she missed the first three, major, battles of the war”. Florence Nightingale’s statistics show that British deaths in hospital from wounds or injuries after March 1855 were nearly 30 per cent higher than before that date. Seacole also records tending to French, Sardinian and Russian wounded at the battle of the Tchernaya, where the British were not involved, making the reasoning even less simple.

Everyone agrees that Seacole had a good war. This is why I have proposed that a statue of her should be placed at the wonderful Crimean War Memorial in Waterloo Place, Westminster, the first in Britain to honour the common soldier. The gushingly inaccurate portrayal of Seacole in some schools, which Lynn McDonald cites, should not count against this. As McDonald once wrote: “The exaggerated praises of the adulatory books, many of them intended to inspire children, scarcely need refutation”. She was referring to Florence Nightingale.

PO Box 7044, London W1.

Florence Nightingale (TLS, 3 January 2014)

Sir, – Hugh Small (Letters, December 13, 2013) has been bashing away at Florence Nightingale since 1998. His most extreme accusation is that the death rates were highest at her hospital in the Crimean War, although he never gave an actual figure (he used rough estimates) or supplied a table. He did not realize that there are no data for her hospital alone (rates for some six hospitals were grouped together). For the period where the data were disaggregated, the highest rates were for the hospital at Koulali, nursed by the Irish Sisters of Mercy, not Nightingale. We should not blame them, however, for they were no more responsible for their hospital having the most unsanitary conditions. The death rates for all the hospitals were brought down drastically, thanks to the reforms of the Sanitary Commission. Nightingale helped, and then did the analysis on what went wrong towards preventing such high rates from recurring.

That is why she and Sidney Herbert (her ally on reform for the common soldier) have statues at the Crimean War memorial in Waterloo Place. Hugh Small thinks that Mary Seacole’s statue should be there with them, but her business was selling champagne, sherry and tinned lob-ster to officers, and catering for their dinner parties and racing meets: all perfectly legitimate work, but not the stuff of founding the nursing profession, making hospitals safer and improving public healthcare for the great mass of the population.

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.

Nightingale and Seacole (TLS, 24 January 2014)

Sir, — Lynn McDonald (Commen­tary, December 6, 2013) shows why 2013 was a banner year for Mary Seacole. It was, however, one among many. Stories of Seacole’ s “nurs­ing” prowess have been circulating for at least twenty years. As McDo­nald points out, Seacole is in no way to blame for the false picture that has emerged, since she never claimed to be a nurse. Misinformation abounds, some of it uncritically repeated by my fellow historians.

In his letter (December 13, 2013), Hugh Small suggests that Seacole deserves a statue next to those of Florence Nightingale and Sidney Herbert at the Crimean War Memorial in Waterloo Place. I disagree. Nightingale and Herbert were memorialized for the sanitary reforms they worked so hard to bring about after the war, reforms that have undoubtedly helped the common soldier. Seacole did little for the common soldier, even for those in the Crimea. In her enterprising way she made life more comfortable for some of the officers. Hers was a productive life, but she should be remembered for who she was, not as a pioneer nurse. Further, those planning a memorial statue for Seacole in the rose garden at St Thomas’ Hospital—the site of Night­ingale’s nursing school—are among the misguided. If anyone deserves a statue on that site it is Nightingale.

Honorary Research Associate, Imperial College, London SW7.