Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole (1805 -1881) : nurse and heroine of the Crimean War

Mary Seacole was born 200 years ago in Jamaica, the daughter of a Scottish soldier and Jamaican mother. Although few people in Britain knew about her until recently, at around the time of the Crimean War hers was a household name. She was known both for her skills as a nurse and for her bravery in tending wounded and dying men on the battlefield.

Mary first learned her nursing skills from her mother, and then from her own observations and experience. She was an expert in the use of traditional and herbal medicines and had successfully treated both cholera and yellow fever. Her expertise went beyond what we would recognise as nursing today. She not only mixed her own medicines but she also operated on gunshot wounds.

Despite her wide experience in the treatment of cholera, she was turned down when she volunteered to join Florence Nightingale’s team of nurses. Although convinced that she was rejected because of her colour, she was determined to go to the Crimea where the soldiers were at greater risk from cholera than from the enemy. Unable to go as part of the official nursing team, she went out as a sutler (someone who sells provisions to the army) and set up the British Hotel where, as well as providing somewhere for soldiers to relax, she cared for the sick and convalescing.

Military hospitals tend to be away from the battlefields but Mary set up her ‘British Hotel’ close to the front. She thought nothing of venturing out onto the battlefield to tend to the fallen. Her bravery was brought to the attention of the British public by William Russell of ‘The Times’ and later by returning soldiers.

At the end of the war she returned to England in poor health and penniless. But once the press revealed her situation, the military organised a fund raising event (which lasted four days) on her behalf. In 1857 Mary published her autobiography ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’ which was a best-seller. It has since been reprinted.

Though famous in her day, by the time she died in 1881, her exploits were largely forgotten. She was buried in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Harrow Road, Kensal Green, London. Mary was voted greatest black briton in February 2004.