Who was Mary Seacole?
Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805, Mary Seacole (née Grant) was a brave and proficient healer.
Mary’s mother, Mrs Grant “was a respected ‘doctress’ who… practised Creole or Afro-Caribbean medicine”.¹ Mary took a keen interest in her mother’s work. She began to help her in treating patients (often members of the British armed forces) from a young age. A contemporary of Florence Nightingale, Seacole was not a modern nurse, but rather a traditional healer. She used her knowledge of herbalism to care for her patients and later adopting the title ‘doctress’ herself.
The Times war correspondent, W.H. Russell, described her as “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 blessings”.²
Tenacious and determined
As a woman of mixed heritage (Seacole’s mother was Jamaican and her father Scottish), Mary was not afforded full civil rights. For example, she could neither vote, nor hold public office.³
She faced prejudice throughout her life. The British War Office refused to permit her to travel to and tend troops in the Crimea despite her experience in treating cholera patients in Panama and yellow fever patients in Jamaica.²
Unperturbed, Mary joined her relative, Thomas Day, and together they travelled at their own expense to the Crimea. Once there, Seacole “established the British Hotel near Balaclava. This provided ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’ . Mary “visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded”.³ It was at this time that she became affectionately known as ‘Mother Seacole’ by those she treated.
Once the war was over, Seacole left Balaclava for Britain. She was in poor health and “penniless having given away any profit she made”.¹ Consequently, the British press campaigned to raise money and organised a concert for her.