March 10, 2021
Mary Seacole
Women in Science & Nature
Photo Credit: Public Domain. One of two known photographs of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)

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(Kingston, Jamaica, 1805 – London, 1881)

Born in Jamaica in the early 1800’s, Mary Seacole (née Mary Jane Grant) was an intrepid traveller, entrepreneur, and healer of the sick, a remarkable woman who pushed aside Victorian norms and overcame racial and gender bias to accomplish whatever she set out to do. 

Seacole and her two siblings grew up middle class during a time when Jamaica was part of the British empire and multitudes of black people were being forced to work as slaves. Her father was a Scottish soldier and her Jamaican mother ran a boarding house where guests included sick and injured patients. Seacole learned the traditional Jamaican remedies from her mother and knew she wanted to become a nurse at the early age of 12.

But Seacole was also curious about the world around her and after two family trips to England, her insatiable desire to travel only grew. She writes in her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands:

“As I grew into womanhood, I began to indulge that longing to travel which will never leave me while I have health and vigour. I was never weary of tracing upon an old map the route to England; and never followed with my gaze the stately ships homeward bound without longing to be in them, and see the blue hills of Jamaica fade into the distance…”

She traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean and Central America often employing her entrepreneurial spirit by buying pickles and jams to sell back in Jamaica. But it was in 1853 that Seacole’s nursing acumen was put to the test when she visited her brother in Panama and met with what she describes as an “unwelcome visitor.” Cholera had made its presence known, a disease she had already encountered and dealt with in Kingston just a few years before. 

A Spanish doctor was sent for, but Seacole describes that he “became nervous and frightened at the horrors around him, and the people soon saw that he was not familiar with the terrible disease he was called upon to do battle with, and preferred trusting to one who was.” Seacole had a knowledge of tropical diseases and resourcefulness of local remedies that proved her to be the most qualified. Perhaps her frustration at being perceived as less than comes across when she says, “I believe that the faculty have not yet come to the conclusion that the cholera is contagious, and I am not presumptuous enough to forestal them; but my people have always considered it to be so…”

Seacole did not have medical training but relied upon naturally-based treatments in what she calls the “simplest remedies.” These included cinnamon-boiled water to quench thirst, or mustard poultices applied to the stomach, spine, and neck to keep the patient warm. Her awareness of nature in her travels is evident when she writes about an excursion into the interior of New Granada:

“I know I wondered much what motive Nature could have had in twisting the roots and branches of the trees into such strange fantastic contortions. I watched with unfailing interest the birds and animals we disturbed in our progress, from the huge peccary or wild boar, that went tearing through the brushwood, to the tiniest bright-hued bird that dashed like a flash of many-coloured fire before our eyes. And very much surprised was I when the Indians stopped before a large tree, and on their making an incision in the bark with a matcheto (hatchet), there exuded a thick creamy liquid, which they wished me to taste, saying that this was the famous milk-tree. I needed some persuasion at first; but when I had tasted some upon a biscuit, I was so charmed with its flavour that I should soon have taken more than was good for me…”
Photo Credit: Baily, John, Active. Map of Central America including the states of Guatemala, Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua & Costa Rica, the territories of Belise & Mosquito, with parts of Mexico, Yucatan & New Granada. London: Trelawney Saunders, 1850. Library of Congress Geography & Maps Division

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Seacole’s extensive travels and resilience through multiple outbreaks of tropical disease would lead her to her biggest adventure yet - the Crimea. Her pluck and spirit of independence are evident when she writes:

“Need I be ashamed to confess that I shared in the general enthusiasm, and longed more than ever to carry my busy fingers where the sword or bullet had been busiest, and pestilence most rife. I had seen much of sorrow and death elsewhere, but that had never daunted me…I never stayed to discuss probabilities, or enter into conjectures as to my chances of reaching the scene of action. I made up my mind that if the army wanted nurses, they would be glad of me, and with all the ardour of my nature, which ever carried me where inclination prompted, I decided that I would go to the Crimea; and go I did, as all the world knows.”

But Seacole was refused official support after multiple attempts in writing to offer her services. While waiting to hear from one prospect, she describes how those around her “marvelled exceedingly at the yellow woman whom no excuses could get rid of, nor impertinence dismay, and showed me very clearly that they resented my persisting in remaining there in mute appeal from their sovereign will.” Another attempt permitted her an interview, but remarked of the outcome, “I read in her face the fact, that had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it.”

The rejection was crushing for one who had the experience, will, and courage to help the war effort. Seacole writes:

“The disappointment seemed a cruel one. I was so conscious of the unselfishness of the motives which induced me to leave England – so certain of the service I could render among the sick soldiery, and yet I found it so difficult to convince others of these facts. Doubts and suspicions arose in my heart for the first and last time, thank Heaven. Was it possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs? Tears streamed down my foolish cheeks, as I stood in the fast thinning streets; tears of grief that any should doubt my motives – that Heaven should deny me the opportunity that I sought…”

Photo Credit: Sketch of Mary Seacole's British Hotel in Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818–1913), a friend of Florence Nightingale's who resided in the neighbouring "Zebra Vicarage"

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But Seacole was not a woman to give up. With the help of her friend Thomas Day, they set up the famous “British Hotel,” a place where British soldiers could rest and buy hot food. She used the money to care for the sick and injured. For all her work and sacrifice, she returned to London penniless and in ill health. Many soldiers wrote to the newspapers on her behalf and a gala was organized and attended by as many as 80,000 people to help raise money on her behalf.

Mary Seacole had an indomitable spirit and an iron will despite the prejudice and obstacles placed before her. Ultimately she showed us what true character looks like: to serve others beyond oneself. Read her inspiring words for yourself in the digital version of her book below.

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