Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born nurse, was known for her many acts of kindness towards those wounded in battle.
Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish army officer, and her mother a free black woman. Mary gained her earliest knowledge of treatment of tropical ailments from her mother, who was experienced in traditional medicine and offered medical care to invalids at her boarding house, called Blundell Hall, in Kingston.
Mary married Edwin Seacole, an English merchant, in 1836. Together they travelled frequently to different parts of the world. During their trips to the Bahamas, Haiti and Cuba, Mary broadened her knowledge of local medicines and treatments. After her husband’s death in 1844, she gained further nursing experience during a cholera epidemic in Panama. When she returned to Jamaica in 1853, she cared for victims of yellow fever.
In 1854, Seacole travelled to England. She had learned of the war in Crimea on the Ukrainian mainland and asked the British War Office to be sent there as an army nurse to wounded soldiers. Despite her experience, her offers to help were refused. This rejection was reflective of the racial prejudice and discrimination of the time. Undeterred, she financed her own trip to Crimea, with the help of a relative of her husband. Once there she established the British Hotel, out of which she distributed food, supplies and medicine to the troops. She assisted the wounded at the military hospitals and was a familiar figure in the area. Her remedies for cholera and dysentery, were particularly valued and she became known as ‘Mother Seacole‘.
Seacole returned to England when the war ended in 1856. By that time, she was impoverished and in ill health. A festival was held in her honour in July 1857 to raise funds to assist her and to acknowledge her contributions. In that same year, she received several accolades from France, England, and Turkey for her work.
Later that year, she published her memoirs, ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands’. The book became a best-seller.
On May 14, 1881, Seacole died at her home in Paddington, London.
Her work was largely forgotten in the decades following her death. However, during 1954, the centenary year of the Crimean War, interest in her story was rekindled. In Jamaica in 1954, the Jamaican General Trained Nurses’ Association (now the Jamaican Nurses’ Association) named their headquarters after Seacole. Later in 1956 and 1957, a ward at the Kingston Public Hospital and a hall of residence at the University of the West Indies in Kingston were also named in her honour.
In 1973, a group of West Indian women in England brought public attention to her achievements, with a special ceremony for the re-consecration of her grave, which was attended by Sir Lawrence Lindo, then Jamaican High Commissioner, and representatives of the nursing profession in Britain.