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Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on 23 November 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier and her mother was Jamaican. Seacole was born at a time when many Black people in the Caribbean were forced to work as slaves, but as Seacole was mixed-race, she was born a “free person”.
Seacole’s mother was a healer who used traditional Caribbean and African medicine to treat people, teaching many of these skills to her daughter. By the age of 12, Seacole was helping her mother run a boarding house in Kingston, where many of the guests were injured soldiers. She even used to practise medicine on her dolls and pets, before working alongside her mother.
In 1823, Seacole travelled first to London and later, in 1825, to the Bahamas, Haiti and Cuba, before returning to Jamaica in 1826. She became one of the first to recognise and practise modern nursing skills, despite her lack of formal education, including the use of hygiene, ventilation, hydration and rest. Seacole’s mother and other Jamaican nurses were practising the use of good hygiene almost a century before Florence Nightingalewrote about its importance.
During the 19th century, large numbers of British troops arrived in the West Indies and were often infected by unfamiliar tropical diseases like yellow fever. Seacole combined her knowledge of traditional West Indian medicine with newer modern medicine, learned from military doctors, and began to experiment with different techniques. She used various remedies, such as mustard emetics to induce vomiting and pomegranate juice to treat diarrhoea.
In 1850, Seacole nursed people during a cholera epidemic in Jamaica and Panama. The epidemic killed as many as 40,000 people in Jamaica – 10 per cent of the island’s population at the time.
Following her time in Panama, Seacole returned to Kingston in 1853. After the outbreak of the Crimean War, Seacole returned to London to offer her services to the British Army, but there was considerable prejudice against women in medicine and her application was rejected by the British War Office.
Undeterred, Seacole funded her own trip to Crimea and established a hotel to provide a place for sick and recovering soldiers – just as her mother had. As well as tending to men in her hotel, Seacole rode on horseback into the battlefields to nurse wounded soldiers on the front lines. Her immense hospitality was tenderly remembered by soldiers on both sides of the war and she became known as Mother Seacole.
Returning to England once the Crimean War had ended, many of the British soldiers Seacole treated wrote letters to local newspapers praising her work. In 1857, a fundraising gala was held in her name on the River Thames – over 80,000 people attended. That same year, she also published her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.
Seacole died in London on 14 May 1881 from internal bleeding. Although she was well-known towards the end of her life, she later became a lost figure in history for over a century. However, in the early 2000s, nurses from the Caribbean revisited her grave in London and brought her back into the limelight. In 2016, a statue of Seacole was erected in the grounds of London’s St Thomas’ Hospital.
Seacole continues to be a role model for many young nurses and health professionals, who praise her hospitality and selflessness. In 2004, more than 10,000 people voted her the Greatest Black Briton.
Full name: Mary Jane Seacole
Born: 23 November 1805, Kingston, Jamaica
Died: 14 May 1881, London (aged 75)
Mary Seacole was a British-Jamaican nurse famous for nursing hundreds of British soldiers back to health during the cholera pandemic of 1850 and, later, the Crimean War.
Read more at New Scientist