Nursing the enduring myth of Mary Seacole

The black Briton hailed as “the original lady with the lamp” and a medal-winning pioneer of battlefield care was nothing of the sort

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“Doctress” but no nurse: Mary Seacole, c.1873

Mary Seacole, who was voted the “greatest black Briton” in 2004, is today routinely described as a “pioneer nurse”, “the first nurse practitioner”, “the original lady with the lamp,” and a “battlefield nurse” who worked “under fire”. Her reputation during the Crimean War, so the story goes, rivalled that of Florence Nightingale. No wonder she was awarded medals — one, two, three, four or five, depending on your source.

The problem is that she never won a single medal, nor did she ever claim to have done so — only the military were awarded medals. And The Times’s contemporary coverage of the Crimean War shows roughly ten items on Nightingale to every mention of Mrs Seacole.

In 2016, a massive bronze statue of Seacole was erected on the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, home of the first nurse training school in the world, which was founded by Florence Nightingale. The statue faces the Houses of Parliament. However, it is a matter of historical record that it was Nightingale who pressed ministers and MPs for action on public health and other social reforms.

Seacole is said to have had more hands-on nursing experience than Nightingale.But she never worked a day in any hospital in any country at any time. She did sell “herbal” remedies to customers at her various businesses, but she added lead and mercury to some, and acknowledged “lamentable blunders”. True, she comforted victims of several epidemics before the Crimean War, but was circumspect about the outcomes.

So what did she actually do? What do the primary sources from the time show? Seacole’s own engaging memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857), goes a long way to refute the current misinformation. There are also newspaper accounts and mentions of her in letters and memoirs by Crimean War officers and doctors. Not one documents her doing any hospital nursing at all, let alone pioneering nursing and improving healthcare, which is now widely claimed for her.

The one documented “contribution” Seacole made to healthcare in the United Kingdom is her donation of 100 bottles of   anti-cholera medicine and 100 boxes of pills during an epidemic (“Mansion House Cholera Relief Fund,” The Times, August 31, 1866). However, since no ingredients are given, and Seacole is known to have added toxic substances to her “remedies”, it is not clear if her donation would have been merely harmless or actually harmful.

In Britain, Nightingale and Seacole are often presented together as equal pioneers of nursing, sometimes with Seacole mentioned first. The propaganda campaign for Seacole has been predominantly British, mainly English. She has been gaining recognition in the United States, however, as a leading “African-American” nurse — though she never set foot there.

A bizarre claim has Seacole, every evening, after managing her business in the Crimea, going to Nightingale’s hospital to nurse with her by night. This would require a 300-mile trek over the Black Sea, a feat further, faster and more frequent than Jesus’s walking  on the Sea of Galilee.

Many accounts of Seacole have Nightingale discriminating against her, some explicitly on account of race. Nightingale is said to have turned her down for a job, sometimes twice, and up to four times. Yet Seacole recounted only one meeting with her, of about five minutes, when she asked her for a bed for the night when she was en route to the Crimea to start her business. Nightingale’s reply: “What do you want, Mrs Seacole — anything that we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy.”

Anyone checking the timing of Seacole’s (casual) applications for a post as a nurse would see that she arrived in England after the fighting had started and was initially busy looking into her failing gold investments. Nightingale and her nurses had left London for the war more than a month before. Seacole even missed the departure of the second group of nurses.

None of the other numerous claims made for Seacole of medals, battlefield glory, etc, appear in her own memoir. The cover illustration shows her with no medals. She wore several back in London, post-Crimea, had her portrait painted with medals, and a photograph and calling card made, also showing her with medals. It was not then an offence to wear someone else’s medals, but only became so in the Army Act of 1955.

Seacole was certainly well-known and greatly appreciated by British officers for her restaurant/bar/catering service — soldiers were permitted only in the “canteen”, as officers and ordinary troops did not mix socially. Much of her book covers the fine food she produced (under difficult circumstances) for officers.

Her pre-Crimea triumphs, according to the accepted myths, include successful treatment of cholera and even developing a cure for yellow fever. Yet in her memoir she claimed no successes for yellow fever, and acknowledged “lamentable blunders” in her cholera “remedies”, which made her shudder to think of.

That Seacole called herself “Creole”, “yellow” and “somewhat duskier” seems not to have mattered to today’s advocates for her as a “black” nurse. She had a white father, white husband and an entirely white clientele in her boarding-house business. Every reference to blacks in her memoir is to other people, never herself. Seacole, like white Jamaicans, employed blacks: a black maid and black porter, and, in her kitchen, two “good-for-nothing black cooks” and “excited nigger cooks” .

Who is responsible for the myths? The first MP to take up the Seacole cause was Clive Soley, a union organiser, Labour MP, then peer. He was approached by Jamaican nurses because Seacole was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in his constituency. The major spokesperson for the statue campaign was Elizabeth (now Dame Elizabeth) Anionwu, a retired professor of nursing. Her enthusiastic articles on Seacole were routinely printed in the Royal College of Nursing’s Nursing Standard. Nursing journals, the BBC and a number of historians who ought to have known better joined in, uncritically repeating the core myths. So have otherwise reputable authors such as Orlando Figes in Crimea: The Last Crusade (2010), Trevor Royle in Crimea: The Great Crimean War 1854-1856 (2000) and A.N. Wilson in The Victorians (2002).

Then, in 2015, David Cameron’s government put up the final money needed to pay for the statue. It had to be large, to beat the more modest one of Nightingale in Waterloo Place. A priest of the Church of England blessed the site.

Much of the responsibility for the myth-making devolves on the Department of Health, the National Health Service and the NHS Employers organisation. It happens that the NHS is the largest employer of black staff in the UK. Someone — it is not obvious who — decided that they should have a black role model, someone to celebrate. Somehow — where is due diligence when you need it? — they decided on Seacole. She had already been named the “greatest black Briton”, which undoubtedly helped.

The Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust put out much misinformation, including that Seacole “supervised nursing services for the British Army in Kingston [Jamaica]” and “provided soldiers with accommodation, food and nursing care,” in the Crimea, receiving four medals.

The Department of Health instituted Mary Seacole Leadership and Development Awards, although she was not a nursing leader and never claimed to be. At most, she called herself some combination of “doctress, nurse and mother”, never “nurse” alone, which term she used for Nightingale and her nurses.

In 2018, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS, Dr Clare Price-Dowd of the NHS Leadership Academy, published a bizarre list of the “great leaders of nursing”, topped by Mary Seacole. She gave no examples of leadership, but repeated the fallacy that Seacole was twice turned down by the British government for the Crimean War, but travelled there herself to care for the “wounded and sick”. Nightingale is listed second, credited with being a clever statistician, but with no recognition that she was the first person to articulate the vision realised by the NHS: quality healthcare regardless of ability to pay, with health promotion and disease prevention goals as well as treatment. Third was Edith Cavell, who was executed by the Germans in the First World War for helping British and Belgian soldiers to escape. Number four is someone the Department of Health and the NHS should celebrate: Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (1915-92), a Nigerian trained at the Nightingale School in London, the first black nurse in the NHS, and the person who did the most to establish professional nursing in Nigeria. Altogether, according to Price-Dowd, these four were “the real founders of nursing, the pioneers who turned nursing into the profession we see today”.

Other national institutions that have joined the parade are the BBC (“educational” programmes), the National Portrait Gallery (banners of Seacole and Lord Nelson both wearing medals), the Royal Mail (on a stamp, with medals) and the National Army Museum (a website and programme for children). Four university buildings are named after Seacole (at Brunel, Salford, Birmingham City and De Montfort).

Schools, teachers, textbook publishers and examination setters joined in the campaign of misinformation. Seacole and Nightingale are in the National Curriculum for KS-1 and 2, and the GCSE in History. Children’s books are typically illustrated with images of a young woman in a nurse’s uniform, aiding soldiers on the battlefield (Mrs Seacole was middle-aged, stout, and never wore a uniform).

Socially-conscious teachers involve their pupils in righting social wrongs such as racial discrimination. One parent told me that his daughter’s KS-2 teacher required the children to write a letter to Nightingale about her discrimination against Seacole. The GCSE examining board OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations) sets out “correct” responses for questions, but which reflect the propaganda, not the evidence.

What nursing did Seacole do? Certainly, she did not work so much as one day in a hospital in the Crimea or anywhere else. She ran a series of businesses and sold her “herbal” remedies to walk-in customers. Before going to the Crimea, she generously gave what assistance she could during outbreaks of disease at her boarding-house in Kingston (for sick clients) and in Panama (men crossing the isthmus to get to the California gold rush). In Jamaica in 1853, she bravely and generously stayed up all night with yellow fever victims facing their end. She provided screens around them, and gave what comfort she could — making it clear that none survived. This she described movingly in chapter seven of her memoir.

During the Crimean War, while waiting for the huts for her business to be set up, she gave out hot tea and cake to sick and wounded soldiers awaiting transfer from Balaclava to the general hospitals in Scutari, across the Black Sea. This was generous and doubtless greatly appreciated, but she stopped as soon as her business was able to open. Later, when a Land Transport Corps hospital opened close to her business, she visited it and distributed (donated) magazines. On New Year’s Day, 1856, she took mince tarts to the hospital. Again, these voluntary actions show compassion and practicality, but hardly constitute professional nursing, let alone leadership in it.