A portrait of Mary Seacole in oils c. 1869, by the obscure London artist Albert Charles Challen (1847–81). The original was discovered in 2003 by historian Helen Rappaport, and acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2008.
Mary Jane Seacole (1805-1881)
Dedicated Healer and Entrepreneur
Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish army officer and her mother a free black woman who ran a boarding house in Kingston. Mary's mother also treated people who become ill. She was a great believer in the herbal medicines. These medicines were based on the knowledge of slaves brought from Africa. This knowledge was passed on to Mary and later she also become a 'doctress'.
In 1850 Kingston was hit by a cholera epidemic. Mary Seacole, using herbal medicines, played an important role in dealing with this disease. She also dealt successfully with a yellow fever outbreak in Jamaica. Her fame as a medical practitioner grew and she was soon carrying out operations on people suffering from knife and gunshot wounds.
Mary loved travelling and as a young woman visited the Bahamas, Haiti and Cuba. In these countries she collected details of how people used local plants and herbs to treat the sick. On one trip to Panama she helped treat people during another cholera epidemic. Mary carried out an autopsy on one victim and was therefore able to learn even more about the way the disease attacked the body.
In 1853 Russia invaded Turkey. Britain and France, concerned about the growing power of Russia, went to Turkey's aid. This conflict became known as the Crimean War.
Soon after British soldiers arrived in Turkey, they began going down with cholera and malaria. Within a few weeks an estimated 8,000 men were suffering from these two diseases. At the time, disease was a far greater threat to soldiers than was the enemy. In the Crimean War, of the 21,000 soldiers who died, only 3,000 died from injuries received in battle.
When Mary Seacole heard about the cholera epidemic she traveled to London to offer her services to the British Army. There was considerable prejudice against women's involvement in medicine and her offer was rejected. When The Times publicized the fact that a large number of British soldiers were dying of cholera there was a public outcry, and the government was forced to change its mind. Florence Nightingale, who had little practical experience of cholera, was chosen to take a team of thirty-nine nurses to treat the sick soldiers.
Although Mary Seacole was an expert at dealing with cholera, her application to join Florence Nightingale's team was rejected. Mary, who had become a successful business woman in Jamaica, decided to travel to the Crimea at her own expense. She visited Florence Nightingale at her hospital at Scutari but once again Mary's offer of help was refused.
Unwilling to accept defeat, Mary started up a business called the British Hotel, a few miles from the battlefront. Here she sold food and drink to the British soldiers. With the money she earned from her business Mary was able to finance the medical treatment she gave to the soldiers.
Whereas Florence Nightingale and her nurses were based in a hospital several miles from the front, Mary Seacole treated her patients on the battlefield. On several occasions she was found treating wounded soldiers from both sides while the battle was still going on.
After the war ended in 1856 Mary Seacole returned to England. She hoped to work as a nurse in India but she was unable to raise the necessary funds. Mary Seacole died in London on May 14,1881.