When you say the name of Florence Nightingale in mixed company a hush tends to fall momentarily. Women in particular become reverent, like medieval nuns shown a Monstrance which holds a saintly relic. The woman is, in fact, a form of saint in our modern metaphor; she left comfort to brave war and bring health and hygiene to suffering soldiers. In fact, this reverence seems a little gnarled around the edges to me now. Allow me to explain.
In 1805 Mary Jane Grant was born in Kingston, Jamaica to a Scottish army officer and a local “free woman of color”. It is interesting to note, simply as an aside, that though the British waved the flag of freeing every slave in the U.S. during the War of 1812, they didn’t trouble themselves to abolish slavery in Jamaica until 1838. Another interesting factoid frequently lost to history.
Mary’s mother was what was referred to as a “doctress”. She hung out her shingle and took in patients like any male doctor. She would have learned her skills at the elbow of another physician, probably her own mother. Mary grew up in her mother’s craft and became a skilled physician in her own right. She began her practice in her twenties and did not marry until she was thirty-one.
The man of choice was a comfortable Jamaican merchant named Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole whose godfather was none other than the great Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. Because of Edwin’s profession, the couple travelled extensively and Mary became a familiar and welcome fixture aboard Mr. Seacole’s merchant vessels. She tended to sailors almost constantly, both aboard ship and by land, on sojourns to Haiti, Cuba, Barbados, Panama and Mexico. She obtained a reputation for successful cures and you can bet there was no grumbling about bad luck at sea because of a woman aboard when Mrs. Seacole was on deck.
From the pictures that have come down to us, Mary appears to have been as sturdy and nurturing as her life story would imply. She has a wide face with a generous expression, a round form and arms that would make any child feel welcome in an embrace. Her bedside manner was said to be relaxed and her voice calming. Mary seems like the kind of lady anyone would want to know.
With the untimely death of her husband in 1844, Mary continued doctoring. After selling Edwin’s business she and her brother Edward sailed to Cruces, Panama where they established an Inn that catered to foreign guests. When a cholera epidemic swept through the city, it was Mary who was at the forefront of medical care. Mary’s cures, involving mustard plasters, teas and gallons of clean water for drinking, were remarkably successful. She wrote of her conviction that cholera was caused by human contact, not miasmas or bad air, and that fear of the disease was as dangerous as the disease itself.
Her successes in Panama increased her confidence as well as her knowledge. When horrible reports of disease and death in the Crimea began appearing in British papers, Mary packed up and headed off to London determined to add her medical expertise to the task at hand. She arrived in England in 1854. Despite entrée into the Secretary of State for Wars’ office via letters from Jamaican physicians, Mary was ignored. While Florence Nightingale, a personal friend of the Secretary’s, was shipped off to Crimea with a batch of French nuns, Mary remained on the outside looking in. Seacole wrote of her frustration, and wisely mentioned that being snubbed most probably had to do with her race and not her gender.
Undaunted, Mary teamed up with a friend from Jamaica – Thomas Day – and gathered supplies in preparation for the arduous trip to the Crimea. After a journey of over 3,000 miles, much of it aboard ship, Mary arrived and set up shop near Balaclava. She opened what was known as a sutler’s, providing supplies to British troops for a fee. Most of these places were glorified gin houses but Mary’s British Hotel was clean, served good food and limited alcohol. Officers flocked to Mary’s place, as did the wounded.
When “Mother Seacole” as she was now known had all in order at her Hotel she rode out to the battlefields with her supplies in sturdy baskets. Sometimes under fire she tended to and comforted the wounded and dying. William Howard Russell in an article for The London Times wrote:
… she is a warm and successful physician who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always attending near the battlefield to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessing.
Mary also saw to sailors in her Hotel and was even asked by one captain to sign on as his physician. A position she politely refused.
When the war ended suddenly Mary was left with financial troubles. Her hostelry was packed with goods and foodstuffs with no one to buy them and she had to walk away from a near fortune. Returning to England, she was quite literally destitute. Word of her uncomfortable circumstances got out and a Military Fund was set up which amounted in the end to very little.
Mary, of course, knew how to take matters into her own hands. This time she wrote her memoirs: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole In Many Lands. Published in 1857, the book sold like hotcakes and brought Mary a bit of celebrity. She was painted and sculpted and she became the personal masseuse to the Princess of Wales (please note my error in originally identifying this Alexandra as the future Czarina of Russia. See Undine's comment on this post for details and stop by her delightful blog some time).
Mary Jane Grant, the well known Mother Seacole, whose capabilities as a doctor had never been questioned, died in London in 1881. She was buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. The Times’ obituary praised her as a heroine, reminding people of her willingness to risk her own life to save men serving her country.
And Florence Nightingale? It’s a bit shameful to tell, really. She began spreading the rumor that Mother Seacole’s British Hotel had not been an outstanding example of sutlery and hospital, but was in fact a brothel and Mary its madam. Fortunately, history is better than petty jealousy and there are plans in the works to erect a statue of Mary Seacole in London to acknowledge her enormous contribution to medicine and to Britain. More about Mary in history class on both sides of the Pond would be a nice touch, too.
Picture via Mary Seacole dot com.