For this series, Emily Im reflects on the historical significance and legacy of Mary Seacole.
Mary Seacole 1805-1881
A reputable nurse and businesswoman, Seacole was skilled in treating people with cholera and yellow fever and used her medical knowledge to help countless soldiers during the Crimean War.
Born in Jamaica—which was part of the British Empire until 1962—Seacole developed a deep interest in nursing. Her mother ran Blundell Hall, a boarding house for invalid soldiers and Mary often assisted her, learning a number of West African herbal remedies. She was also a frequent traveller and visited countries like Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas and Britain. In every place she visited, she would gather important information about local plants and herbs that benefited the sick and by 1850, the information she had acquired was being put to use as Kingston began facing a cholera epidemic. A mere year later, Seacole found herself helping the residents of Panama as they suffered from the same disease. Similarly, when there was a yellow fever outbreak in Kingston, Seacole cared for the victims of the illness.
Seacole went to London and offered her services to the British Army
In 1853, Seacole went to London and offered her services to the British Army after hearing about the poor medical treatment injured soldiers were receiving. The War Office rejected her, however, as there was heavy prejudice against women who wanted to be involved in medicine. Even when Seacole applied to join Florence Nightingale’s team of army nurses, her help was refused.
she was able to treat men on the battlefield and soon earned the name ‘Mother Seacole’
Undeterred by the discrimination, Seacole self-funded her journey to Crimea and arrived at the peninsula by boat. There, she founded the British Hotel near Balaclava, ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. As she was situated fairly close to the fighting, she was able to treat men on the battlefield and soon earned the name ‘Mother Seacole’.
Once the war ended, Mary returned to Britain and was highly praised by soldiers in newspapers. She had little money but a fundraiser was held for her in 1857 which 80,000 attended. That same year she published an autobiography called the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands and it was an instant bestseller.