Mary Seacole - a Jamaican Nurse: 1805 - 1881
Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica, probably in 1805, daughter of a Scottish soldier and a free Jamaican mother. Her mother kept a boarding-house for invalid soldiers in Kingston and Mary first learned about healing by watching her mother tend the sick. She married in 1836 but her husband died in 1844.
Mary was an inveterate traveller and visited other parts of the Caribbean, including Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas, as well as Central America and Britain. On these trips she complemented her knowledge of traditional medicine with European medical ideas. She alternated between commerce and healing, making a name for her skills during the 1850 Jamaican cholera outbreak and the 1851 Panama epidemic. She set up and operated boarding houses in Panama to assist in her desire to treat the sick.
Confident that her knowledge of tropical medicine could be useful, and after hearing of poor medical provisions for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, she travelled to London to volunteer as a nurse. Relying on her experience in the Caribbean, she applied to the War Office and asked to be sent as an army assistant to the Crimea. She was refused, mainly because of prejudice against women's involvement in medicine at the time. Undaunted Seacole funded her own trip to the Crimea where she established the British Hotel near Balaclava to provide 'a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers'. She also visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded, and became known as 'Mother Seacole'. In a dispatch written on 14 September 1855, William Howard Russell, special correspondent of The Times wrote that she was a "warm and successful physician, who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow's blessing."
Her reputation rivalled that of Florence Nightingale. When the conflict ended in 1856 she returned to England destitute and in ill health. The press highlighted her plight and in July 1857 a benefit festival was organised to raise money for her, attracting thousands of people. Later that year, Seacole published her memoirs, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. It is a vivid account of her experiences, and is one of the earliest autobiographies of a mixed-race woman..
Seacole was lauded in her lifetime, alongside Florence Nightingale, but after her death she was forgotten for almost a century. Today, she is noted for her bravery and medical skills and as "a woman who succeeded despite the racial prejudice of influential sections of Victorian society".
She has been better remembered in the Caribbean, where she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991. The headquarters of the Jamaican General Trained Nurses' Association was christened "Mary Seacole House" in 1954, followed quickly by the naming of a hall of residence of the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. A ward at Kingston Public Hospital was also named in her memory.
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