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.