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Part I: Debunking A “Bitter Rivalry”: The Notable Works of Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale

This is the first in a series focusing on Seacole and Nightingale
Part II: The Nursing/Healing Work of Mary Seacole: Skillful Nurse and Doctress
Part III: Nightingale’s Neglected “Upstream” Advocacy

“Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of Western history. They were abortionists, nurses, and counselors.  They were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging secrets of their uses. They were midwives, travelling from home to home and village to village. For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures,learning from each other and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities. Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright.”1( p.25)

It seems almost surreal to be writing this blog, which centers on two 19th century nurses who became known for their nursing work in the Crimean War (1854-1856), among other things, at a time when the world’s attention is once again focused on conflict in that part of the world (although the Crimean Peninsula itself was annexed from the Ukraine by Russia in 2014). Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole are each known for nursing in the Crimean conflict; however, the path each woman took to get there and what is known about their pre- and postwar nursing work could not be more different. Nevertheless, the purpose of this blog is to argue for recognizing and honouring both Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole as early nurses – that there is no need for a “bitter rivalry”.

Currently many nurses and scholars seem polarized between what is essentially a “cancel Nightingale” culture on one hand an denial of Seacole as a nurse on the other because, as a sociologist and noted Nightingale scholar notes, she never worked in a hospital nor trained any nurses. Yet. I am convinced that any nurse who reads her autobiography will recognize Seacole’s nursing, as does the Florence Nightingale Museum. I do not think it serves either nursing or the people in our care to vilify or lionize either woman. This blog is about two imperfect 19th century nurses, written by a third almost 200 years later.

In this first of the series, I focus on the facts that I have gathered from my in-depth reading of the available accounts of each of these important historical figures and evidence of the significant circumstances that shaped each of their lives. The second part of this series will focus on the Nursing/healing work of Mary Seacole. The third part of this series will focus on Nightingale’s “upstream” advocacy.

In some senses, the differences between the paths to nursing taken by Nightingale and Seacole could not be greater. One was born into a white, wealthy, influential, and privileged upper middle-class family of the British Empire, and presented at court to Queen Victoria;(3) the other was the child of a colonized Jamaican woman (Jamaica was a British colony until 1962) who ran a boarding house in Kingston, Jamaica, and a white Scottish soldier of whom Seacole gives no further information.(2)

Likewise, what is known about their nursing and personal lives is vastly different. Great Britain has long had a literary tradition, passing knowledge from one generation to the next through written documents. Nightingale wrote a great deal and never seems to have thrown any piece of paper away; letters, memos, papers and their drafts and revisions filled her house- in her own words, she had enough papers “to cover Australia” (3,p.4) and of whom volumes have been written. In contrast, the Jamaican tradition of passing knowledge to the next generation was an oral one and it is therefore not surprising that the only first-hand account of Mary Seacole’s nursing work is an autobiographical account(2) she wrote after suffering bankruptcy following the Crimean War.

The difference in the literary and oral traditions is also reflected in how Nightingale and Seacole learned to become nurses and dovetails with the family support each woman experienced. Seacole learned from her mother, whom she called an “admirable doctress,’”(2,p.3) how to attend to the injured and ailing officers, who often stayed, sometimes with their families, in her mother’s boarding house. In addition, to the Creole remedies her mother used, Seacole also gained some 19th century medical knowledge from army surgeons. Nightingale, on the other hand, had experienced at age 16, what she believed to be a “calling From God “to His service.”(3, p. 51I) Her desire to fulfil that calling through nursing, however, was met with strong opposition from her mother, older sister, and others, such as Florence’s respected friend, novelist Margaret Gaskill,(3) on the grounds that nursing was unsuitable for a woman of good breeding. Despite the opposition, Nightingale believed that she could best serve God through nursing. Her goal was to learn nursing through an established program at the Kaiserworth Institute in Germany, because its focus was the charitable care of its patients, in contrast to some nursing orders in England which she had explored, and whose primary focus, Nightingale believed, was more about religious conversion than healing.(3)

Those differences in their respective upbringings and culture directly affected each of Nightingale’s and Seacole’ Crimean odysseys. Nightingale had read newspaper accounts of the lack of sufficient care afforded to sick and injured British soldiers, in contrast to those of French troops. That report led to the formation of a Times fund “to provide supplies and care for the soldiers.”(3,p.204) As Nightingale was preparing to offer going to the Crimea herself, she received a proposal from family friend and Secretary-at-War, Sidney Herbert, “to superintend a Government-sponsored group of nurses” to Scutari.(3,p.205) The expedition and all supplies were funded presumably by the Times fund and/or the British government.

Locations of Sevastopol (top circle) of which Balaclava was a suburb and Istanbul (Constantinople at the time of Seacole and Nightingale), (lower circle), located near Scutari

Seacole, in contrast, though she had travelled to Great Britain for business reasons, confessed a strong desire to be of service to her “old friends of the 97th, 48th, and other regiments”(3,p.56) had become her primary goal. “I made up my mind that if the army wanted nurses, they would be glad of me.”(2,p.58) She had brought testimonials with her, one of which she includes in her book, attesting to her “professional zeal and ability” in the treatment of aggravated forms of tropical diseases,”(2,p58) (many of which were also present in the Crimea). Seacole was aware that although Nightingale was already in the Crimea, more nurses were to follow, so she applied to the War Office without success.

Persisting in her efforts, Seacole obtained the home address of the Secretary-at-War, Sidney Herbert and, after a long wait, received a message from a “Mrs. H.” that “the full complement of nurses had been secured and “read in her face the fact that, had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it.”(2,p.59) A final effort to obtain funds for her passage to the Crimea from the Crimean Fund also failed. Seacole confesses to crying in the streets, reflecting on her unselfish motives for trying to reach the Crimea and wondering whether her rejection had been racially motivated. After a night’s sleep, however, her determination was renewed and she resolved to travel at her own cost, noting “I would willingly have given them my services as a nurse; but as they declined them, should I not open an hotel for invalids in the Crimea in my own way?”(2,p.60) As she contemplated by what means she might accomplish this goal, she met up with Mr. Day, whom she identifies as a “distant connection”(2,p.51) of her late husband and with whom she had recently participated in a gold prospecting venture, shortly before leaving for England. When they met in London, Mr. Day was enroute to Balaclava and they agreed to open a hotel and store there. But she noted that the new arrangements “were not allowed to interfere in any way with the main object of my journey”(2,p. 62) and before she left England, invested “a great portion of my capital. . . in medicines. (2,p.162)

Enroute she reports meeting several officers she had known, all of whom assured her of how welcome she and her services would be, addressing her affectionately as “Mother Seacole.” At a stop in Malta, she met medical officers coming from Scutari, one of whom, upon hearing her plans, furnished her with a letter of introduction to Nightingale. On arriving in Constantinople, (now Istanbul) she received letters from Mr. Day, already in Balaclava, instructing her on which supplies were she still needed. While there, she toured the hospital at Scutari, guided by an acquaintance she had known from one of the regiments in Jamaica and, as she did, others recognized her with cries of “Mother Seacole”.(2) She was advised not to attempt travel to Balaclava at night but to ask Nightingale if any accommodation was available. Seacole reports that Nightingale graciously arranged a bed in the washerwoman’s quarters, which seems also to have served as a makeshift infirmary for ailing nursing staff, along with breakfast in the morning(2).

The next morning, Seacole boarded a ship to cross the Black Sea and upon landing in Balaclava, all the supplies she had purchased had to be removed from the ship to the wharf. Mr. Day had arranged accommodation for her on a munitions ship, stationed in the harbour, on which she was to live until their hotel was sufficiently complete for her occupancy. In the intervening 6 weeks, Seacole spent days on the shore to protect her supplies and nights on the ship. She used her time on shore in part to selling some goods as well attending to wounded and sick soldiers on what she called the “sick wharf.”(2,p.77)

Next week, Part II of this series will focus on the nature of Seacole’s ideas about nursing, as reflected in her own accounts of her work caring for the sick and injured. Her accounts clearly document that she was a woman healer, recounting instances both of providing nursing care, as well as administering medicinal/Creole remedies to treat disease.

Sources for this Series:

  1. Ehrenreich, B. and English, D. 2010. 2nd ed. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses… A history of Women Healers, Feminist Press.
  2. Seacole, M.  2020. Memoirs of Mrs. Seacole: The Autobiography  of Britain’s Greatest Black Heroine, Business Woman, and Crimean Nurse. Books, Kindle edition.
  3. Bostridge, M. 2017, Florence Nightingale: The woman and her legend. Penguin Books, Kindle edition
  4. McDonald, L. 2017, Florence Nightingale, Nursing, and Healthcare Today. Springer Publishing; Kindle edition)
  5. Nightingale, F. 2017.eCassandra and Suggestion for Thought, Routledge, (1868 edtion) Kindle edition.
  6. Nightingale, F. 1958. Notes on Nursing for the Labouring Classes,  Kindle edition.

*Source for map of Turkey is

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