Celebrating Mary Seacole on her 195th birthday

Guest blog written by Sarah Price, Nurse Practice Educator and Examiner

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind” is a current maxim and an appropriate tribute to describe Mary Seacole’s disposition.

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Mary’s benevolence resonated with those who met her as she was naturally kind and generous. She was born on the 23rd November 1805; her patrilineage was Jamaican and her matrilineage was Scottish, and she was equally proud of both. She refuted stereotypes regarding the differences in her kinship, or her skin tone even though this was admired, and her strong character meant she accepted differences in others. When she faced narrow-mindedness she rose above it and did not let it hold her back.

Mary was born in Jamaica and her family had a guesthouse sited on a British Army Camp where her Father worked. Her route into nursing was inspired by her mother, herself a ‘healer’, who as well as sharing her knowledge, guided her natural ability. In today’s world, support for the natural caring abilities of contemporary nurses often starts in Care Assistant roles, before progressing to theoretical training in university and clinical nursing skill tests with real patients, prior to the final exam. The professional standards of nurses are reviewed by revalidation, and that bar is continually raised. These stringent measures weren’t imposed on Mary but she was known for her conscientious reputation. Mary nursed on the battlefield, with a notable kindness and her skills were admired for the way she treated the soldier’s injuries. They named her Mother Seacole to show appreciation for her empathy towards them.

There were many chapters in Mary’s working life – she was a multi-skilled Doctress (this non-gender-neutral term is no longer used; it describes a combined role of Nurse, Doctor, Midwife and Masseuse) as well as a business woman. But she was principally known as a pioneering well-travelled Nurse. Mary navigated her nursing career and grasped all potential chances to work in new areas. Mary’s enthusiasm resonates with today’s nurses who can seize opportunities availed to them in their training and in the roles they are drawn to and love to work in, as they advance in their own careers.

Mary started developing her nursing skills from the age of 12 helping her mother run their hotel where many of the guests were sick or injured soldiers. In her biography (The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands – published by Penguin Classics) she describes how she practiced on her dolls, and then pets, before developing her core skills on people. Mary’s love of travelling began in her teens and she started to develop her business acumen by travelling to England, the Bahamas and Cuba and bought goods to sell in Jamaica. In 1826, she arrived back home and opened a store selling food and goods, whilst continuing her nursing work at the same time.

In 1936 Mary married Edwin Seacole, whose parentage has been intriguingly deliberated. Edwin’s health was poor and he had been adopted by the surgeon and male midwife Thomas Seacole who said he was his Godson. But allegedly, Edwin’s real parents were Horatio Nelson and his mistress Emma Hamilton. The parish register at Southend is said to attest to this fact. Edwin worked as a Merchant and the couple started running a food store together but it wasn’t the success they’d hoped for. In the early 1840’s Mary had a difficult time when both her husband and her mother died. Mary grieved for a short while but her fortitude protected her and with an admirable strength of character she took over the running of her mother’s hotel, nursing patients with cholera at the same time.

By 1851, her brother Edward, had set up his own hotel in Jamaica. Mary joined him but still treated patients during the ongoing cholera epidemic; she was appreciated for her beneficence as she charged her rich customers, but not the poor. Although she had not had formal British nursing training, Mary was still recognised for the healing and nursing she had undertaken. She also used herbal treatments (with success) and wanted to gain an insight into containing the epidemic. However, she eventually caught cholera herself and had to spend some time recovering.

With her herbal remedies, Mary’s work principles were based on patient support and choices. Herbalists rely on the phyto-chemicals (phyto = plants) in herbs as these biologically active chemicals give protection from bacteria, viruses and fungi. They can be administered in a number of ways to be effective and the phyto-nutrients within them have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. The bioethical provenance of herbal therapies has had a lasting impact and Mary found their utility was well received at her home in Jamaica. But this was not always the case on her travels, and she learnt to be resilient to cope with those rejections. Present-day nurses rely on their resilience to sustain them while safely nursing patients with infections, particularly with the current risks posed by Coronavirus. It is that resilience which mirrors Mary’s nursing legacy.

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In 1852, Mary heard about the Crimean War and she returned to England to volunteer as a Herbalist and received sponsorship to travel to the war as part of her work. Her interest was thwarted when she applied to nurse the wounded but was denied the funding to join the other nurses. Mary had taken plenty of references to support her request but the evidence was met with skeptical responses. Mary was undeterred and forged ahead with confidence in her own capabilities. She set off, accompanied by her friend Thomas Day, in a ship stocked up with her self-funded medical supplies.

Critical reflections of that time describe the barriers she faced as a nurse, even though her purpose was unmistakable. Mary was not oblivious to the fact that cultural differences were part of the cause for the unfair attitudes levied at her. She also found that despite her recognised eminence as a nurse/healer she was prevented from meeting the distinguished nurse Florence Nightingale. They knew of each other, but their nursing stories do not merge in history due to their differing expertise and due to the latter’s reluctance to meet Mary. But Mary’s principal incentive was not to engage, her motivation was to contribute and to do so by nursing, and this she achieved with style.

Mary was shocked at the condition of the soldiers due to the physical and psychological traumas they sustained in combat, and she soon set up a steel hut nearby called the ‘British Hotel’ and sold hot drinks, food and equipment for them. She used the money she earnt to treat the acutely ill men on the battlefield and had extraordinary success doing so using her herbal healing skills.

Mary boldly wore bright clothes in the fields of fighting and she walked or rode a horse to reach the soldiers. The intellectual and physical demands on her were starkly different to the nursing challenges of 2020. In the war Mary had very little resources when she bravely crossed the hostile war region to give therapeutic nursing to immunosuppressed soldiers. They had open wounds and were at high risk of the subtle life-threatening symptoms of sepsis. Compare that picture to the lateral skills required of nurses in the community today, nursing critically ill patients, or those in comparable roles as emergency trauma nurses in war zones who have schematic assessment pads and technical gear to support them. Contemporary nurses learn about the pathophysiology of sepsis to make decisions for their ailing patients, while Mary faced the distressing milieu of war and saw irrefutable indicators of fever, fear, dehydration and serious neuropathies without chemical results to guide her decisions. It is difficult to imagine the stressful challenge of gauging the right treatment to ease shrapnel pain. Her strengths were her nursing skills to treat the soldiers’ bodily injuries, or to recognise their deterioration and when this happened she gently gave tender, skillful care so they died with dignity.

All her life Mary came across hurdles but she persevered to achieve her success. She was very generous with the help she gave, and the credit she allowed for hot meals, alcohol and medicinal herbal remedies. Her central aim was to treat the person as well as their physical injuries so that they regained their health and had a positive state of mind. However when the war ended, Mary was exhausted and broke!

In 1857, after the war, Mary filed for bankruptcy back in England. A successful charity gala was held to raise money for her, and soldiers wrote to newspapers about the care she gave. The same year, Mary wrote her autobiography. She was rather well known and her friends and acquaintances were grateful for her expertise. This also included the British Royal Family who she treated and who formally awarded her 4 medals for ‘Kindness to soldiery’.

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Mary passed away on 14th May 1881 at her home in Paddington, London aged 75 years. In 2016, a statue of Mary was erected at St Thomas’ Hospital in recognition of her status as the first nurse practitioner.

During the course of 2020, we have all seen the growth of a more thoughtful appreciation of diversity and cultures – at last! Mary Seacole remained non-judgemental when faced with negativity or personal prejudices. We can all mirror those thoughts and add important layers to our own learning to appreciate her admirable nursing story and level headed way of thinking. As a nurse, I hold Mary Seacole in reverence for the fascinating person she was, and feel proud of the nursing work she did.

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