Mary Seacole – Pioneering Nurse and Adventurer

Forgotten Scientist Series

We invite you to read the (forgotten) story of Mary Seacole – Pioneering Nurse and Adventurer

Mary Seacole in 1873

Mary Seacole was a Jamaican woman of mixed race who excelled as a nurse, businesswoman and a traveler in the 19th century. Her work and reputation rivaled that of Florence Nightingale’s.  During her time she defied social expectations and prejudices. Due to the racial and gender discrimination that she faced; her legacy has faded to obscurity after her death – until now.

By Aimee Lee

Early Life

In 1805, Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica to a Scottish father and Jamaican mother. Her father was a Lieutenant in the British Army and her mother a traditional healer. It was from her mother Mary picked up her nursing and healing skills.

Mary’s mother, Mrs. Grant, ran a boarding house called Blundell Hall in Kingston, which was also a convalescent home for military men recovering from illnesses. At the tender age of 12, Mary was already helping her mother “The Doctoress” treat sick and injured soldiers. Despite not having any formal nursing training, Mary learnt through the traditions of creole medicine and the knowledge of tropical diseases.

Seacole the Explorer

At the time it was rare for a woman to travel. Mary traveled and lived in Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas, Panama and Britain. During her travels, Mary continued to acquire knowledge as a nurse, by learning about European medicine which complemented her skills in traditional Caribbean healing techniques. She married Edwin Seacole in 1836, but usually travelled without a chaperone – which was unusually independent for that time.

While abroad, not only did Mary develop her nursing expertise but she also became an entrepreneur. In her travels, she bought spices, jams and pickles to sell back in Jamaica. When she lived in Panama, she opened a goods store while continuing her work in nursing. After her husband’s and her mother’s deaths, both in 1844, Mary took over the running of Blundell Hall, and treated patients through the cholera epidemic of 1850.

Seacole the Humanitarian

In 1853, the Crimean War broke out on the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea and Turkey. Thousands of troops were injured and many died from cholera. In 1854, Mary asked to be sent to Crimea as an army nurse, but she was refused. Not giving up, she traveled to Crimea using her own money and medical stock and built the “British Hotel” near the battlefields. Despite its name, this was no ordinary hotel – it was a sanctuary for sick and wounded soldiers to seek treatment, rest, and buy sustenance. She prepared medicines, diagnosed illnesses, provided bandages and other medical kit, and even delivered minor surgery – she was written of very highly by The Times’ war correspondent: “A more tender or skillful hand about a wound or a broken limb could not be found among our best surgeons.”

Later Years – Mother Seacole

After the Crimean War, Mary returned to London with very little money and poor health. Those who admired her, including soldiers that she nursed back to health, and even members of the Royal family came to help. Thousands of soldiers reached out to newspapers about her tremendous work. Known among the soldiers as ‘Mother Seacole’, she was considered one of the most caring nurses.

In 1857, a fund-raising gala in her name was held and was attended by more than 80,000 people, and in the same year, Mary penned her autobiography, ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands’. This was one of the earliest autobiographies written by a mixed-race woman. The success of her autobiography also propelled her further into the limelight, resulting in a number of medals from different countries.  She spent the last 20 years of her life living in both London and Kingston, and died in 1881.

Seacole’s Legacy

Though she was very well known at the time of her death, after that her name and her story were nearly completely forgotten for a century. The great author Salman Rushdie listed her as an example of erased black history.

In the 1970s, interest resurged about this remarkable mixed-race woman, who defied all the odds, and her grave was re-discovered in London in 1973. Since then, many recognitions of her work have been established, from hospital wards named for her, to stamps and a blue plaque dedicated to her in the UK. Despite the racial and gender discrimination she faced, in her life and after death, Seacole remarkable life made a mark on history which deserves to be known and respected today.

Want to know more about forgotten scientists, have a look at our latest blog articles here from Frontiers for Young Minds.

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