By Lynn McDonald

Note: The following was accepted for publication by the Nursing Standard; then, in the course of production, rejected.

The Royal College of Nursing has put out a message effectively crediting Mary Seacole (1805-1881) with Florence Nightingale’s (1820-1920) work, both in the Crimean War (1854-56) and in founding the modern profession of nursing. Nightingale’s mission was to ordinary soldiers in the war, to improve their nutrition and shelter, and provide good nursing care in the hospitals. Seacole’s huts at Kadikoi were for officers. She had intended, she said in her Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, to provide beds for convalescing officers (81), but then, for business reasons, settled on limiting her services to restaurant meals, takeaway and a store for officers, with a “canteen for the soldiery” (131). Yet the Nursing Standard, more than once, has Seacole “offering accommodation, food and nursing care to British soldiers,” contrary to her own memoir. She never did any of that, but Nightingale did.

Seacole campaigners would like nurses to believe that Nightingale rejected her offer to nurse with her. Some claim that Seacole travelled to London precisely to volunteer her services, but, in her own memoir, she explained that her purpose was to see to her Panama gold mining stocks (74). Only after arrival, and after Nightingale had left for the war, did she decide that she also wanted to go. Even then she never applied (the applications can be seen at the National Archives, Kew), but went around to army offices asking to join them. She may have been turned down for reasons of race (impossible to say at this distance), but if so, it was not by Nightingale.

The two met only for some five minutes, and the encounter was cordial as Seacole described it in her memoir (90-91). The French chef Alexis Soyer knew them both, and he too reported friendly relations in his Culinary Campaign. Yet source after source has Nightingale being hostile to Seacole, if not guilty of outright racism.

Channel 4’s film, “Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea,” depicts Nightingale as disdainful and barely polite to “the real angel.” Labelled a “documentary,” the film portrays the meeting between them quite differently from Seacole’s description in her memoir. Incidentally, Nightingale neither invented nor liked the “ministering angel” or “lady of the lamp” imagery, but she did use a lamp on her late-night ward work. Her greatest effect was not so much as an “angel” but as the “passionate statistician,” after the war, researching the causes of the high hospital death rates and working strenuously behind the scenes to bring in better systems.

The negative portrayal of Nightingale draws on a now thirty-year vilification campaign by a number of authors, which long predates the Seacole campaign. It began with F.B. Smith’s 1982 Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power, and was stepped up by Hugh Small’s 1998 Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel, which made outlandish accusations about her hospital work, without a table or chart in support. The current Seacole campaign for Seacole as the “real” heroine and founder builds on these two books. And, if you believed them, a better heroine and founder was badly needed! British nurses failed utterly to see, let alone refute, the fallacious claims of those books.

Nurses simply do not know what a low status “nursing” had when Nightingale set to work. They complain that she made nurses “subordinate” to doctors, at a time when doctors had university, medical education, and “nurses” not even secondary school. Nightingale accordingly started with apprenticeship-type training, requiring only literacy for admission to her school. The teaching of medical science could only be brought in gradually.

Seacole, by contrast, is extolled for being independent of doctors, a nurse practitioner or even a doctor herself, a topic to be pursued in the next article. Her supporters seem to be oblivious to her own admission of “blunders” in her remedies, that she might have “lost patients” by her mistakes (31). But then Seacole’s occupation was businesswoman: pre-Crimea she ran a boarding house and store, sold preserves and pickles and shellwork; during the war she ran a restaurant and bar and catered for officers’ social and sporting events, her “doctress” work was always on the side. For Nightingale, nursing was always the great commitment.

Photo of the SeacoleChallen portrait, with
explanation that she did not win the medals.

Photo of the Seacole Challen portrait, with explanation that she did not win the medals.

Picture of brooch Queen Victoriagave to Nightingale, which she did not wear.

Picture of brooch Queen Victoria gave to Nightingale, which she did not wear.

Seacole as Doctress

Mary Seacole in her Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands described her training in herbals by her “doctress” mother and referred to herself as a doctress. As such she diagnosed the illness, determined and administered the treatment, without reference to any medical supervision. She claimed medical knowledge and surgical skills (40), but never called herself a doctor. The claims that she was a nurse, and even a nurse practitioner, doctor and pharmacist, are very recent.

Seacole sometimes called herself “nurse and doctress” or the reverse, but never simply a “nurse.” She did not nurse in any hospital in any country, and never claimed to have. When she referred to her “patients” at her Kadikoi huts in the Crimean War, they were all walk-ins, seeking remedies for sale. She did first aid work on three occasions during the war (18 June, 23 August and 8 September 1855). However her major function on those occasions was the sale of alcohol and food to spectators and officers (see her Chapter 18). The total amount of her “battlefield” service would have been less than a shift at an army hospital. She was not “often” on the battlefield, and never during a battle.

Then RCN president Sylvia Denton is quoted in the Nursing Standard saying that Seacole had an “unshakeable belief in the power of nursing to make a difference.” Actually, that was Nightingale’s belief and work. “Mrs Seacole changed the face of modern nursing,” the article continues, without giving a concrete example.

Seacole’s independent stance–practising medicine without a licence–has attracted many nursing leaders. Yet they conveniently avoid mention of such facts as that Seacole herself admitted to “lamentable blunders” and stated frankly that some of the remedies she used later made her “shudder” (31). Her claims of success for cholera were modest, non-existent for yellow fever (Chapter 7). Yet she is frequently cited as having successfully treated both diseases.

According to Elizabeth Anionwu, Seacole became “so well known in the Caribbean for her successful treatment of yellow fever and cholera victims that the British military asked her to supervise nursing services at their military camp in Kingston.” But Seacole’s own account says only that she was asked to provide nurses, not that she did. She went herself, leaving her sister and nurses for the sick at her boarding house. I “did my best,” she said, “but it was little we could do to mitigate the severity of the epidemic” (63). The camp had no nurses to supervise, for the British Army did not then employ women nurses.

The Nursing Standard neglects to mention that Seacole’s cholera remedies included the use of mercury externally, and lead acetate internally, both toxic substances.

Historian Simon Schama described Seacole as having “acquired a reputation for working miracles of recuperation among the critically sick.” He praised her “antidotes for dysenteric diseases…drawn from the Caribbean botanical pharmacopeia” (History of Britain 3:221). However, we do not know what was in that “botanical pharmacopeia,” nor how “Caribbean” it was, since she purchased her supplies in London (81). She never gave a full list of her ingredients with quantities for any treatment.

Anionwu contrasted Seacole with Nightingale on their relations with doctors, condemning Nightingale as “controlling,” and clashing with them, while Seacole “generally got on well with her medical colleagues.” However there is no evidence that any doctor accepted Seacole as a medical colleague. Before her huts were ready for business she generously provided tea and lemonade to sick and wounded soldiers at the wharf awaiting transport to the general hospitals–all that the doctors would let her do, she said (101). Nightingale was in fact resented at first–women nurses were a novelty–but gradually the doctors came to accept them. A number of leading doctors then became major allies in her post-Crimea work, promoting nursing, hospital and healthcare reform. Not one doctor had any on-going professional contact with Seacole. She was the woman who ran a restaurant and was kind to the soldiers–which she was. Neither the tea and lemonade, nor the first aid, however, made her a nurse, let alone a “pioneer nurse.”

Lynn McDonald is professor emerita at the University of Guelph (Canada); director of the 16-volume Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, 2001-12; and author of four later, short, books on Nightingale. She is a former Member of Parliament.

For more background:, and on Nightingale,