Part II: The Nursing/Healing Work of Mary Seacole: Skillful Nurse and Doctress

This is the second in a series focusing on Seacole and Nightingale
Part I:
Debunking A “Bitter Rivalry”: The Notable Works of
Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale

Part III: Nightingale’s Neglected “Upstream” Advocacy

Mary Seacole (source)

In reading Seacole’s book, my impression is that she was a woman healer, recounting instances both of providing nursing care, as well as administering medicinal/Creole remedies to treat disease.  In today’s terms, we might equate her with a Nurse Practitioner whose nursing practice includes disease management.  Seacole clearly differentiates the nursing care she provided from disease treatment, noting that she had gained a reputation as a “skilful nurse and doctress,” 2(p.7). In Jamaica, she recalled, her “house had always been full of invalid officers, some of whom were military surgeons from whom she gained much knowledge that allowed her to be “useful to my kind in many lands.”2(p.8)

Before leaving for her Crimean odyssey in 1854, Seacole had travelled to numerous Caribbean and Central American countries such as Panama, Haiti, New Providence and the Bahamas. In each of those “adventures” she reports both providing care to sick, injured and dying people that unquestionably, included both nursing and medical care, the latter involving the management of several cholera epidemics and at least one outbreak of yellow fever. Seacole, to a great extent, learned on the job and admits to, at first, making some “lamentable blunders,”2(p.25) a confession to which most nurses (and I expect, physicians) can relate when thinking back to the earliest weeks of providing patient care as students! Activities she reports, such as keeping her patients warm, comfortable, hydrated, nourished, providing wound care, monitoring effectiveness of treatments and/or for signs of deterioration, as well as providing comfort for dying patients are easily recognizable as nursing activities. Her medical care involved the treatment of injury and disease as well as tending to gunshot wounds and stitching up an ear that had been slashed in a fight. She recalls once performing an autopsy on a baby that had died of cholera in her arms, so she could discover more about how the disease affected the body.

Seacole’s approach in the Crimea reflected the same approach of providing both nursing and medical care, even while still enroute to her eventual destination. While touring Scutari, she couldn’t resist “lending a helping hand, “replacing a slipped bandage or easing a stiff one.”2(p.66) Her time on the “sick wharf” is another early example.  

Once the “British Hotel” was sufficiently completed, Seacole turned her attentions fully to the purpose for which she had come: to provide care for wounded and ailing British soldiers. Recalling that “many came…daily for medical treatment,”2(p.93) in what sounds much like today’s “walk-in” clinics, she adds that they also had access to goods they could purchase in her store. Their ailments, she noted, included “every variety of suffering and disease2(p.109) including frostbitten fingers and toes. One day, she reported, was much like the next, except “when there was full-scale fighting and duty called me to the field.”2(p.108)  Seacole admits to a reluctance to “blow my own trumpet”2(p.93) and so includes testimonials from others, such as a portion of a poem, (later published,) which attests to her caring for all soldiers without regard to rank. Included, as well, is an excerpt from Russel’s Letters from the Seat of War that testifies to her success as she “doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battlefield to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings.”2(p.187)

Seacole comments that she “conscientiously cannot charge myself with doing less for men who had only thanks to give me, than for officers whose gratitude gave me the necessaries of life.”2(p.100)

Seacole has been criticized for her use of “sugar of lead” in the treatment of cholera. It should be noted, that Seacole did indeed report using it as a last resort, if a cholera patient didn’t respond to initial treatments, which included “mustard plasters, emetics, and calomel . . . applied externally, where the veins were nearest the surface.”2 (p.25) Calomel, is a mercury compound and, with lead and arsenic, was among the heavy metals in common use by 19th century physicians.)3,4  These testimonials challenge some of the prevailing criticisms of Seacole, namely that she was in the Crimea primarily as a business women, that she provided service primarily to those who could pay her, and that she spent little time on the battlefield. Furthermore, she repeatedly states in her autobiography that her main reason for being there was to provide care for British soldiers, particularly those regiments that had served in Jamaica.

It is evident by Seacole’s bankruptcy at the end of the war, that she did not benefit personally from the business aspect of her time in the Crimea. Factors that likely contributed to that bankruptcy are the costs she shouldered for her journeys to and from the Crimea, her living expenses while there, and the cost of any medicinal remedies and supplies such as bandaging that she would have paid for.

Ironically, it is Nightingale’s biographerwho provides the most compelling testimony to Seacole’s Crimean nursing,  her bravery, and the affection with which she was held by the British Army, which, he notes, “organized a benefit for her when she fell on hard times. Bostridge criticizes the “false comparisons’ (between Seacole and Nightingale) as not belonging to the “realm of serious history,” and furthermore, failing” to do justice to the significant contributions of either woman.”3(p.272) “In terms of practical nursing expertise” he affirms,”Seacole far outdid Nightingale’s experience of “hands-on nursing.”3(p.273)  

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.

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