Mary Seacole was one of the pioneers of nursing during the Crimean War. Bringing years of medical experience and combatting racial prejudices, Mary set up her own institution closer to the battlefields of Balaclava and nursed soldiers in the fray, winning their ardent praise and respect as she did so.
But she was more than just a nurse: she successfully ran several businesses, travelled extensively and refused to accept those who told her no.
Here are 10 facts about Mary Seacole, talented nurse, intrepid traveller and pioneering businesswoman.
1. She was born in Jamaica
Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805, Mary Grant was the daughter of a doctress (healing woman) and a Scottish lieutenant in the British Army. Her mixed-race heritage, and in particular her white father, meant Mary was born free, unlike many of her contemporaries on the island.
2. She learnt a lot of her medicinal knowledge from her mother
Mrs Grant, Mary’s mother, ran a boarding house called Blundell Hall in Kingston as well as practicing traditional folk medicine. As a doctress, she had a good knowledge of tropical diseases and general ailments, and she would be called upon to act as a nurse, midwife and herbalist amongst other things.
Many of Jamaica’s healers also recognised the importance of hygiene in their work, long before their European counterparts.
Mary learnt much from her mother. Blundell Hall was used as a convalescent home for military and naval personnel which further broadened her medical experience. Seacole wrote in her own autobiography that she was fascinated by medicine from a young age and began to help her mother treat soldiers and patients when she was young, as well as observing military doctors on their ward rounds.
3. She travelled a remarkable amount
In 1821, Mary went to stay with relatives in London for a year, and in 1823, she travelled around the Caribbean, visiting Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas before returning to Kingston.
4. She had a short-lived marriage
In 1836, Mary married Edwin Seacole, a merchant (and some suggested the illegitimate son of Horatio Nelson and his mistress, Emma Hamilton). The pair opened a provisions store for a few years before moving back to Blundell Hall in Kingston in the early 1840s.
In 1843, much of Blundell Hall was burnt down in a fire, and the following year, both Edwin and Mary’s mother died in rapid succession. Despite, or perhaps because of, this set of tragedies, Mary threw herself into work, taking over the management and running of Blundell Hall.
5. She nursed many soldiers through cholera and yellow fever
Cholera hit Jamaica in 1850, killing over 32,000 Jamaicans. Mary nursed patients throughout the epidemic before travelling to Cruces, Panama, to visit her brother in 1851.
The same year, cholera also hit Cruces. After successfully treating the first victim, she established a reputation as a healer and nurse, treating many more across the town. Rather than simply dosing patients with opium, she used poultices and calomel and tried to rehydrate patients using water boiled with cinnamon.
In 1853, Mary returned to Kingston, where her nursing skills were required after an outbreak of yellow fever. She was asked by the British Army to supervise medical services in the headquarters at Up-Park in Kingston.
6. The British government refused her request to nurse in the Crimea
Mary wrote to the War Office, asking to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea, where high mortality rates and poor medical facilities were making headlines. She was refused, perhaps on the grounds of her sex or skin colour, though it is not exactly clear.
7. She used her own money to open a hospital in Balaclava
Undaunted and determined to help, Mary decided to head to Balaclava alone to set up a hospital to nurse soldiers, opening the British Hotel in 1855. As well as nursing, the British Hotel also provided provisions and operated a kitchen. She was widely known to British troops as ‘Mother Seacole’ for her caring ways.
8. Her relationship with Florence Nightingale was probably very amicable
The relationship between Seacole and Crimea’s other most famous nurse, Florence Nightingale, has long been pitched as fraught by historians, particularly as Seacole was denied the chance to nurse alongside the Lady with the Lamp herself.
Some accounts also suggest Nightingale thought Seacole was a drunk and did not want her working with her nurses, although this is debated by historians. The two certainly met in Scutari, when Mary asked for a bed for the night en route to Balaclava and there is no record of anything other than pleasantries between the two in this instance.
During their lifetimes, both Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale were spoken about with equal enthusiasm and respect and were both extremely well-known.
9. The end of the Crimean War left her destitute
The Crimean War came to an end in March 1856. After a year of working tirelessly next to the fighting, Mary Seacole and the British Hotel were no longer needed.
However, deliveries were still arriving and the building was full of perishable, and now virtually unsaleable goods. She sold as much as she could off at low prices to Russian soldiers returning home.
She was warmly welcomed home on her return to London, attending a celebratory dinner at which she was the guest of honour. Large crowds flocked to see her.
Mary’s financial situation did not improve, and she was declared bankrupt in November 1856.
10. She published an autobiography in 1857
The press were made aware of Mary’s plight and various fundraising efforts were made in order to give her some degree of financial means with which to live out the rest of her life.
In 1857, her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands was published, making Mary the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography in Britain. She largely dictated to an editor, who improved her spelling and punctuation. Her remarkable life is detailed thoroughly, concluding with her adventures in Crimea being described as the ‘pride and pleasure’ of her life. She died in London in 1881.