You’ve heard of Florence Nightingale but did you know she had a black equal? Up until recently, the story of Mary Seacole was untold.
Mary Seacole was born on 23 November 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. Mary’s mother ran a lodging house, called Blundell Hall, which was much respected by local people in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city. But she was also a healer and taught Mary many of her skills using traditional Jamaican medicines.
She was a keen student from early childhood and would practise medicine on her doll, dogs and cats, and on herself. By the age of 12, Mary was helping her mother run the boarding house, where many of the guests were sick or injured soldiers.
In 1854 Seacole decided to come to England and approached the war office to ask to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea. Unfortunately, she was rejected due to racial prejudice, so instead, she made her own way there and set up a medical store and hostel near Balaclava.
Seacole became famous for her work in the Crimea among the troops. On the battlefield, she nursed the wounded and was known by the name of ‘Mother Seacole’. Even though she met Florence Nightingale, she was not invited to join her nursing team. When she returned to England in 1856, she was not recognised for her work and achievements in Crimea and after suffering from bankruptcy she decided to publish her life story to raise money.
In comparison to Florence Nightingale, Seacole did not come from a wealthy middle-class background or have any formal training. Not only did she suffer from the restrictions placed on women at this time but she was also hindered in her nursing career by the colour of her skin. Despite these prejudices, she established herself as an inspirational figure for other women to follow and also for black people in general. Sadly, Mary Seacole, like many important black historical figures never received the recognition she deserved in her lifetime.
Mary Seacole died on 14 May 1881.