Mary Seacole (1805-1881) - The National Library of Jamaica

Mary Seacole (1805-1881)

Mary Seacole was born Mary Joan Grant in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 to a Creole mother and a Scottish father. It was from her mother that she inherited her interest in nursing. Her mother, nicknamed “the Doctress”, kept a lodging house at East Street, Kingston where she nursed army officers and their families from Up Park Camp. At age twelve, after much observation, Seacole was allowed to help her mother with the patients.

In 1836, Seacole married Edwin Horatio Seacole, an invalid, who is said to have been the godson of British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson. Still newly-weds, they moved to Black River where they established a store; he died soon after, however. Seacole’s mother also died later, leaving her to operate the nursing home in Kingston.

Although Seacole was one of the victims of the Cholera epidemic in 1850 in Jamaica, she traveled to Panama to set up a hotel with her brother. While there, she diagnosed what might have been the first case of cholera to occur in that region. Again, in 1853 when yellow fever raged all over Jamaica, Seacole’s skills were brought to the fore. She returned to Panama in 1854. Her arrival coincided with the cholera epidemic in that country. Here she aided in medically treating Cholera victims and as a result became known as the ‘yellow woman from Jamaica with the cholera medicine’.

Later in 1853, when Turkey declared war on Russia and intense fighting took place in the Crimean Peninsula, she decided to offer her services as a nurse. Many soldiers were dying not only from war wounds, but also illnesses such as cholera and dysentery. Seacole believed that her experience with these diseases would be of value in the Crimea.

In her endeavour to work as a nurse in the Crimea, she wrote a letter introducing herself to Florence Nightingale, who was responsible for the group of nurses going to the Crimea. Nonetheless, such attempt was unsuccessful. Thereafter, she continued to seek assistance and support in going to the Crimea; her repeated attempts proved futile, however. Consequently, she decided to go on her own and used the assets she had to build a facility (referred to as a mess table and the ‘British Hotel’) in the Crimea. This facility provided medical, food, and other services and was used mainly by officers.

The Mess-table, as Seacole called it, was established in Spring Hill, two miles from Balaclava and a mile from the British headquarters. Before long, the facility became a fixture of the war because of the services it offered. In addition to the services she provided at the ‘British Hotel’, she made ‘home visits’ to the campsites and procured supplies that were otherwise unavailable.

Seacole would set out carrying bags of lint, bandages, needles, thread and medicine accompanied by mules loaded with sandwiches and other food, wine and spirits, arriving on the battle-field at dawn.  Such activities were no doubt risky nevertheless she was devoted to her cause. Seacole returned to London deeply in debt. However, the British Commander in Chief of the Crimea forces and the duke of Wellington and New Castle organised a four-day festival of music and gave her the proceeds.

Subsequently, she published an autobiography, entitled, The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole, which included her time in the Crimea.

Mary Seacole died in England in 1881.

Honours

The memory of Mary Seacole was first honoured by the nurses of Jamaica, when in 1954 they named their projected headquarters ‘Mary Seacole House’.

Nine years later the Association acquired a life-sized bust of Mary Seacole, which stands in the foyer in the headquarters. The bust is a reproduction done by a Jamaican sculptor, Mr. Curtis Johnston, of the original one located at the Institute of Jamaica.

After her return to England, Mary Seacole was presented w ith the Crimean medal, which the Jamaica Government in 1991 awarded her posthumously with the country’s third highest honour, the Order of Merit.

The female hall of residence at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies also bears her name in recognition of her distinguished contribution to medicine, healing and nursing.

The British Government in 1993 announced a Bursary in her name valued at 25,000 pounds.