Born in Jamaica in 1805 to a Scottish soldier father and a mixed-race mother, Mary Seacole travelled to Crimea in the 1850s to set up a treatment centre for soldiers.
Known as “Mother Seacole”, she was not a traditional nurse likeFlorence Nightingale or Edith Cavell. Indeed, having been taught herbal medicine by her mother – a “doctress” who used traditional Caribbean and African herbal remedies – she was rejected four times when she tried to join the official nursing ranks.
She moved to Gorgona in Italy, where she briefly ran a women’s-only hotel, before she decided to travel to the war-torn region of Crimea independently, setting up a “hotel” for injured soldiers in the town of Balaclava. She is said to have sold everything from handkerchiefs to champagne. She cooked up sponge cakes, custards, soups and stews to bring a taste of home to her “sons”.
In her memoirs she described it as a place to provide “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”.
“The grateful words and smiles which rewarded me for binding up a wound or giving a cooling drink was a pleasure worth risking life for at any time,” she said.
Salman Rushdie cited Seacole as an example of “hidden” black history in his Satanic Verses. “See, here is Mary Seacole, who did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamping lady, but, being dark, could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle.”
In June, a statue of the nursing heroine was unveiled outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London – an institution long associated with Nightingale.
Mary Seacole statue unveiled in LondonPlay!01:45
“This is an incredible woman who is a role model to us all,” said Baroness Benjamin at the time. “Because we all have to face adversity, we all have to face obstacles but when you’re determined, when you know you can break down those barriers and that’s what she showed.”
She is said have been awarded several medals for bravery.
What the critics say about Mary Seacole
There are those who say Seacole’s achievements have been overstated.
Sociology professor Lynn McDonald wrote in the Times Literary Supplement: “During the Crimean War, probably her greatest kindness was to serve hot tea and lemonade to cold, suffering soldiers awaiting transport to hospital on the wharf at Balaclava.
“She deserves much credit for rising to the occasion, but her tea and lemonade did not save lives, pioneer nursing or advance health care.”
The decision to erect the statue at St Thomas’ Hospital was also criticised because she had no connection with the institution. According to The Times, Dr Sean Lang said she “does not qualify as a mainstream figure in the history of nursing”.