Mary Seacole is most famous for her role as a nurse in the Crimean War 1854-56. She was a contemporary of Florence Nightingale who was made famous by the press and was claimed to be the founder of modern nursing. Seacole has become famous in recent times by historians resurrecting her memory from the shadow of Nightingale.
Seacole was born in Jamaica of a Scottish father and Jamaican Mother. Her skin colour often became an issue. When travelling, especially with Americans, she could experience prejudice, and gave as well as she got. She travelled to London under her own steam to join up with Nightingale and then the army but was refused. Having experienced the care she gave her customers were very accepting, but there still was the hint of racism that tried to hold her back.
She learnt Creole medicinal art from her mother. This would stand her in good stead for many remedies such a concoction for curing dysentery. She travelled to Panama twice and nursed people with cholera, successfully in some cases. In Jamaica she nursed British regiments stationed there. On learning about there deployment in the Crimea, she upped sticks and headed for London to help.
She was refused by all, with a suspicion of racism in the reaction to her. She formed a company with Thomas Day to provide catering services at Sevastopol. She built British Hotel at Springhill. There she sold stores, fed the troops and nursed the ill and injured. Her style was one of compassion for her customers, remembering many of them when she wrote her autobiography. She treated the customers as individuals and dealt with them personally rather than just manage them.
It was a method that balanced the more regimented and military style of Nightingale, whose hospital was in Scutari across the Black Sea. Nightingale accused Seacole of running a house of drunkenness and improper conduct.
In Jamaica she was rightly hailed as a hero in Jamaica, but less so in England. British society preferred Nightingales style. Nevertheless, Mary Seacole’s methods sit, not in opposition to Nightingales, but as two arms of a great nursing tradition that had its genesis in the Crimea.