Mary Seacole – worthy of the National Curriculum?

When I was a kid, only one name sprang to mind when anyone mentioned the Crimean War – Florence Nightingale. But another woman has threatened to knock her off her pedestal in recent years, and it’s led to controversy. Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 to a white Scottish army officer and a Creole woman, from whom she learnt about nursing skills and herbal medicine. She became a well-travelled and respected ‘doctress’, treating many in the cholera epidemic of 1850, as well as a yellow fever outbreak in Jamaica. Although she later admitted that she made some ‘lamentable blunders,’ she was committed to her work and took any opportunity to learn. She operated on people with knife and gunshot wounds and even carried out an autopsy to enhance her understanding of disease.

At the outbreak of the Crimean War, she travelled to London and applied to the War Office to serve as one of Florence Nightingale’s nurses, but was refused. Undeterred, she paid for her own passage to the Crimean peninsula. Even when she arrived, she wasn’t allowed to join the ranks of the nurses. ‘Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?’ she questioned. But her age – fifty when she volunteered – and the fact that her herbal medicine was frowned upon, can’t have helped.

Mary refused to be beaten and saw beyond the confines of hospital wards. Determined to be useful and, using any materials she could get her hands on, including driftwood and packing cases, she set up the ‘British Hotel,’ which was described as a ‘mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers.’ She became a familiar figure at the battlefield, dodging bullets to help the wounded. Her unconventional style of nursing care, which included selling alcohol to sick men, earned the disapproval of Florence Nightingale. But she made important advances in the relationship between psychological and physical illnesses, was loved by the men to whom she became a mother figure, and after the war, when people discovered she was bankrupt, 80,000 people attended a fundraising event to help her.

Although she spent her later years in obscurity, in recent years she’s had the recognition she deserves, and in a 2004 poll she was voted the greatest Black Briton of all time. But not everyone agrees. In 2012, the Daily Mail (who else?) spewed vitriol when plans were announced for a statue of her – larger than that of Florence Nightingale – at St Thomas’ hospital, and printed an article that portrayed her as some sort of cheery barmaid who wasn’t a proper nurse and wasn’t even black. In 2013, Michael Gove tried to remove her from the National Curriculum. I’m not going to argue that her achievements are greater than Florence Nightingale’s, but surely there’s a great lesson here in triumph over adversity? And any woman who inspires children of all races has to be worth learning about.

Rosalind Franklin – cheated out of her place in history?

This week I’m going back to my science roots, to a woman who died on this day, fifty-six years ago. When I worked at King’s College London, I was based in the Frankin-Wilkins building. Its namesakes, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, were runners-up in the race to discover of the molecular structure of DNA. Like many, I’d only heard of Watson and Crick. But Rosalind Franklin could have taken all the credit for the discovery of the double helix, if only she’d got on better with her colleague.

Born in 1920 into a rich Jewish family, Rosalind decided to be a scientist at 15 and got a place at Cambridge in 1938, but her father refused to pay at first; he didn’t believe in university education for women. She began a successful academic career, publishing five papers on the structure and uses of coal before she was 26, and her work helped launch carbon fibre technology.

She then worked in X-ray diffraction – the use of X-rays to create images of crystals – and accepted a job in King’s College London with Wilkins. The two had a prickly relationship, not helped by a misunderstanding at the start: he thought she’d been employed as his assistant rather than a peer. Their personalities also clashed: he was introverted, methodical and passive; she was outspoken, quick and decisive. Other aspects of her working life, such as inequality of pay and the fact that she wasn’t allowed to eat lunch in the same common room as the male scientists, frustrated her. Eventually, she became so unhappy that her colleagues called her ‘the dark lady’. In 1953 she moved to Birkbeck college to get away from King’s.

But Wilkins and Franklin’s mutual dislike had terrible consequences. Franklin was very close to deciphering the structure of DNA and had a paper accepted by Nature. But Wilkins, frustrated by Franklin, had become friends with Crick and Watson in Cambridge. In the course of Franklin’s move to Birkbeck, Wilkins got hold of her notes and images of DNA, which have been described as ‘the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken,’ and showed them to Watson and Crick without her knowledge. ‘Photograph 51’ revealed two clear strands, giving the Cambridge men the last piece in the jigsaw. “My mouth fell open and my pulse began to race,” Watson later wrote in his book, The Double Helix.They created the model of DNA that gave them their place in history. Two weeks later, they rushed out their paper in Nature, without fully acknowledging Franklin’s work. The same issue of the journal contained Franklin’s paper, but relegated her work as confirming Watson and Crick’s findings, rather than enabling it.

Franklin never knew that Watson and Crick saw her images, and later became friends with them. But Birkbeck was a happier time for her; she turned her talents to studying viruses, went on to publish 17 papers in five years, including groundbreaking work on the tobacco mosaic virus, and was liked and respected by all who worked with her. In 1956 she travelled to the US and fell in love with a scientist, but at this time she noticed the pain that was the first symptom of ovarian cancer, probably a result of her work with X-rays, so she ended the relationship. She died two years later, at 37. Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel prize for medicine in 1962 for their work on DNA. But Franklin was forgotten, because Nobel prizes aren’t given posthumously.

These days, Franklin is rightly acknowledged, but nothing can right the wrong that Wilkins did to her. On her tombstone is engraved the words: “Her work on viruses was of lasting benefit to mankind.” Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to science was more important than she ever knew.


Princess Khutulun – not a woman to be messed with

Among the sexist comments I’ve had thrown at me in my professional life, was the suggestion that I didn’t have the physical presence to chair an interview panel. So this week I’ve chosen a woman who had possibly the most impressive physical presence in history. Princess Khutulun of the Mongol Empire was born around 1260 and was the daughter of Kaidu Khan, the most powerful ruler of central Asia, niece of Kublai Khan and great-granddaughter of Ghenghis Khan. She had fourteen elder brothers, so it’s probably not surprising that she learned to fight. But no-one expected her to turn out to be quite so good at it.

Khutulun was an all rounder: a champion archer and pretty good on a horse, too. The Mongols considered athletic prowess to be a spiritual trait, so Khutulun soon gained a reputation for being ‘blessed by the spirits.’ This made her a something of a lucky charm when she joined her father on the battlefield. Where Khutulun went, victory followed. Her unconventional fighting technique helped, too. Marco Polo described her as someone who could ride into enemy ranks and snatch a captive as easily as a hawk snatched a chicken.

It wasn’t unusual for a Mongol woman to go to battle. But what made Khutulun unique was her wrestling skill. Mongolian wrestling is pretty short on rules. There’s no matching for size or weight and no time limit. It lasts until any part of the body other than the foot touches the ground, so competitors can push and shove each other around for hours until one of them falls over. The long winter nights on the steppes must have flown by …

And while men queued up to take her on in wrestling, the same was true in life. Her beauty was as famous as her strength. But here’s the best bit of her story – she would only marry a man that would put up 100 horses and then beat her in wrestling. And no-one could. She remained undefeated and amassed 10,000 horses, more than the emperor of China. Then the rumours started. People said that she wouldn’t marry because she was involved in an incestuous relationship with her father. And so, to protect him, she married one of his followers, without fighting him. Marriage didn’t stop her from going to war, another thing that made her unusual.

Khutulun was her father’s favourite, and he tried to name her as his successor before his death in 1301, which didn’t go down too well with her brothers. She wasn’t keen on becoming ruler either, and made a deal with her brother that instead she’d become commander of the army and back his bid to become Khan. But a few years later she died in her mid-forties, of unknown cause. It’s hard to believe that one of those brothers wasn’t involved.

And our feisty warrior princess might have disappeared from history altogether if it hadn’t been for a French historian, Francois Petit la Croix. While researching Ghengis Khan, he found her story and rewrote it, changing her name to Turnandot, which means ‘Turkish daughter.’ The story then became the basis of Puccini’s opera (you know, the one with Nessum Dorma). So while Western culture portrays her as a woman defeated by love, in Mongolia she’s remembered as the most successful female wrestler in history. But the Mongols made sure that no more women made fools of their men. When wrestlers compete in the annual games, they have to wear a vest that’s open to the waist. At the end of the games the winner raises his hands above his head to demonstrate that he’s not a girl.

I think it’s fair to say that Khutulun would have had enough physical presence to chair anything she wanted. And if anyone dared suggest she didn’t, she’d have grabbed him by the throat.

Harper Lee – letting her work speak for her

It was only a matter of time before I got to an author, wasn’t it? And Harper Lee is close to my heart for two reasons. The obvious one is To Kill a Mockingbird. It constantly appears on lists of ‘books you should read before you die,’ and rightly so. If you haven’t read it, do, and then argue with me whether Atticus Finch was the greatest fictional hero of all time. Its themes – race, injustice and class – are still relevant and it has a warmth and compassion rare in books that touch on such important issues.

As an aside, although I don’t approve of joke reviews on Amazon when it brings down a book’s overall ratings, this is genuinely funny:

As another aside, even a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird gets genuine one star reviews. Something for all fellow writers to bear in mind: reading is a subjective experience; you can’t hope to please everyone!

But back to the point. The other reason I admire Harper Lee is that by writing this book, she exposed a great deal of herself and her early life: a brave thing for a naturally shy woman to do. She did a few interviews at the time of the book’s release and then she stepped out of the limelight forever. She’s constantly on lists of famous recluses but I don’t see her that way. As an author who finds the whole business of self-promotion excruciating, I can understand why she’d want to live her life outside the glare of public scrutiny and to enjoy the simple pleasures of an ordinary life. When honoured at an award ceremony a few years ago, she said, ‘Well, it’s better to be silent than a fool.’ Then she sat down again.

But Nelle Harper Lee was no shrinking violet. Born in 1926, her early life in Alabama was difficult; her mother suffered from violent mood swings and, according to friends, once tried to drown Harper in the bath. It turned her into an aggressive child who was handy with her fists. Tougher than all the girls, she protected her best friend, Truman Capote, who was considered a sissy by the other boys. But her father was apparently the inspiration for Atticus Finch, so life couldn’t be all bad. And she had that all-important factor: an inspiration English teacher.

She studied law but dropped out to pursue her writing dream. It was tough at first, but friends gave her the best Christmas present ever: enough money to live on for a year so she could devote all her time to the project. If any of my friends happen to win the lottery this year, that was a hint. And what a project it was! To Kill a Mockingbird was and instant success and Harper remains the only author to win Pulitzer Prize with her first and only published novel. It’s been translated into nearly 50 languages and turned into an Oscar-winning film

And she never published another novel. Apparently she started one but never finished it. Instead, she helped Truman Capote research his master work, In Cold Blood. Specifically, she carried out a lot of interviews on his behalf: she was warm and more approachable than the flamboyant Capote. He dedicated the book to her when it was published in 1964.

I admire her low profile and normal life, as well as the fact that she’s not in the least materialistic: whatever she does with the millions she earns from her books, she keeps quiet about it. She let her work speak for her.