Profiles In Nursing

Mary Seacole (1805–1881), Crimean War Memoirist

Her bestselling book inspired the British public and Royal Family

A sepia toned photo of Mary Seacole wearing a dress and sitting on a chair, looking down

A multiracial lay nurse and businesswoman from Kingston, Jamaica, Mary Seacole created a life for herself that defied the stereotypes of her time and built a memorable legacy on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Growing up in Jamaica

Born Mary Grant sometime in 1805, Seacole was the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican nurse.

She developed an interest in nursing at an early age. Her mother ran a boarding house for sick and injured soldiers, and by age 12, Mary was routinely helping her mother care for boarders. During this time, she also learned traditional Jamaican healing remedies that she’d use in her own nursing work as an adult.

Growing up in a multicultural family informed Seacole’s upbringing and fueled her desire to see the world. As a girl, she spent three years in England, visiting relatives. Later, she frequently traveled to nearby Caribbean islands, including Haiti and Cuba, gathering spices to resell in Jamaica — the first of many entrepreneurial ventures.

A Cholera Epidemic

In 1836, she married Edwin Seacole and opened a supply store with him. However, just eight years later, Edwin fell ill and died. Seacole’s mother died the same year.

Six years later, in 1850, a cholera epidemic swept through the Caribbean. The disease, spread by contaminated food and water, claimed the lives of 10 percent of Jamaica’s population.

During this emergency, Seacole cared for fellow Jamaicans suffering from cholera, using both the healing remedies she’d learned from her mother and contemporary medical treatments. Unfortunately, some of these, like mercury chloride and lead acetate, did more harm than good; Seacole later admitted there had been “lamentable blunders.”

As the outbreak subsided in Jamaica, Seacole traveled to Panama, where she opened a store to sell food and goods to travelers on their way to California to be a part of the Gold Rush. Her store was across the street from her brother’s hotel, which also served miners on their journeys west.

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However, the cholera epidemic wasn’t over, and it wasn’t long before it spread to Panama. Again, Seacole jumped into action, caring for sick people. She contracted the disease herself, but escaped severe illness.

Nurses in the Crimean War

In 1853, Seacole returned to Kingston, where she learned of the developing Crimean War.

The Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) had declared war on Russia, which was attempting to take over Crimea (modern-day Ukraine). France and England allied with the Ottoman Empire, and Seacole watched as British soldiers left Kingston to join the war in Europe.

Around that time, the English secretary of war consulted Florence Nightingale to build a team of nurses to take care of British soldiers. Nightingale gathered over 30 nurses and set sail for Crimea.

Seacole arrived at the War Office in 1854 to offer her help, but she was told her nursing services were not needed and was turned away.  Though she never identified as a Black woman, Seacole suspected she was rejected because of the color of her skin. In her memoir, she wrote:

The disappointment seemed a cruel one. I was so conscious of the unselfishness of the motives which induced me to leave England — so certain of the service I could render among the sick soldiery, and yet I found it so difficult to convince others of these facts. Doubts and suspicions arose in my heart. . . . Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?

Creating Her Own Role

Although she wasn’t hired as a nurse, Seacole created a role for herself that involved helping soldiers. Along with her friend Thomas Day, she opened a “British Hotel” in Crimea. This “hotel” was more like a hut, from which Seacole offered food, tea, first aid and emotional support to British officers and enlisted men.

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When she wasn’t working at her hotel or gathering supplies, Seacole went aboard British ships in the Crimean Sea to hand out tea and cakes. She became so well-known among grateful, homesick soldiers and sailors that she earned the nickname “Mother Seacole.”

Seacole and Day had a thriving trade throughout the Crimean War. However, the war ended in February 1856, shortly after they’d restocked a large supply of goods, and Seacole and Day were forced to abruptly close their business.

A Bestselling Memoir

Seacole returned to England following the war, where the financial loss of closing her Crimean business led to her bankruptcy in late 1856. However, her reputation as a caring and compassionate nurse would help to recover her losses.

Back in their homeland, British soldiers’ fond stories of how Seacole helped them survive the war made her a minor celebrity. Thousands of Brits came together to coordinate a fundraiser for her, although the well-intended event netted little money.

Seacole’s financial fortunes improved after publishing her 1857 memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, in which she shared stories about her time in the Crimean War and travels around the world. The book became a bestseller.

The memoir inspired the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria to create a Seacole Fund, which allowed her to live a comfortable life for her remaining days. She died in 1881, at the age of 76.

Mary Seacole’s Legacy in Nursing

Mary Seacole was never a professional nurse, and she was always more focused on the human side of nursing than on the science. However, her compassion, charisma and zest for life touched many people she encountered throughout her life, which is why she’s still honored over 140 years after her death.

In her birthplace, the headquarters of the Jamaican Nurses Association is called the Mary Seacole House, while a hospital ward is named for her at Kingston General Hospital. In the UK, an annual service is held for her at her gravesite. In 2004, she was voted “Best Black Briton.”

ALEXA DAVIDSON, RN, MSN, is a freelance health writer and registered nurse with over a decade of experience in neonatal and pediatric cardiac intensive care.

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