Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Is Mary Seacole the new mother of nursing?

Mariella Scerri
Mellieha, Malta


Sketch of Mary Seacole
Sketch of Mary Seacole by Crimean war artist William Simpson (1823–1899), c. 1855. Source.

The promotion of Jamaican businesswoman and “doctress” Mary Seacole as the pioneer nurse in place of Florence Nightingale was given considerable credence early in 2013, when Seacole was named a “pioneer of health care” by the UK Department of Health in its new Leadership Awards Programme.1 She had already been dubbed “pioneer nurse,” words engraved on a bronze statue planned for St. Thomas’s Hospital, which has been the home of the Nightingale School of Nursing for more than a century. Both “pioneering” and “heroine” appear on the plaque for Seacole at Brunel University’s Mary Seacole Building, opened by the Queen in 2006.1

In writing her narrative about her adventures in the Crimea—clearly intended for a British public—Seacole had to contend with Victorian patriotism, social hierarchy, and philosophical ideologies. In an effort to distinguish her English subject position, Seacole purposely “erases her debt to a Caribbean national context.”2 Nevertheless, Wonderful Adventures reflects Seacole’s feeling of crisis about identity and authority because the narrative voice of a colonial other—even when she is offering a first-hand account of her own life—simply lacks the authority enjoyed by the white English.3 It is possible that Seacole’s emphasis on the socially confirmed roles she played in the Crimea reflects her self-conscious awareness that her story might not carry the same weight as those written by white Englishmen and women. Her ambition to write a bestseller may have clashed with her personal opinions about race, culture, social status, societal obligations, gender roles, nursing, and doctoring. She ran the risk of conflict with the British Empire and Victorian propriety. She was, however, able to let her readers laugh and smile while highlighting moral issues such as slavery and racial bigotry.

Seacole’s autobiography is famous for its description of her journey to the Crimea and eyewitness accounts of the Crimean War. From the moment she resolved to serve the British army in the Crimea, Seacole saw the battlefield as a “stage for performance where very humble actions are of great use.”4 Seacole’s representation of the battlefield as “a theatrical stage invites us to understand her actions as performances, which in turn points to her identity as unfixed and able to shift according to the different engagements that each stage required.”5 At the same time, this construction of the Crimean stage decentralizes Britain’s geographical and cultural position as it reflects her view that the centrality of a locale is contingent upon its being a stage of action. In this way even “a little corner” of the world such as the Crimea could warrant the attention of the British public.6

Mary Seacole’s early years are pertinent to her narrative. As a young woman, she helped her mother to prepare traditional Creole herbal medicines and treat sick British soldiers in Jamaica. The soldiers’ wives also went to her mother’s Kingston boarding house, Blundell Hall, for help and treatment. Her mother was “familiar with the prognosis and treatment of tropical diseases, general ailments and wounds” and her expertise was recognized throughout the island.7 The techniques of Creole medical art had evolved on plantations and were based on knowledge of herbal medicine and midwifery brought from Africa.8

Young Mary Seacole grew up in the company of British soldiers, officers and their wives, and medical doctors. Her autobiography attributes an interest in military affairs to her father, who was a soldier from an old Scotch family: “and to him I often trace my affection for a camp-life and my sympathy with what I have heard my friends call the pomp, pride and circumstances of glorious war.”9 From a young age she was eager to know more about anatomy, physiology, symptoms of disease, and pathology.10 As an African-Jamaican student who was taught by her mother, she grew up learning to nurse and cure using practice-based evidence and knowledge of herbal medicine, and respecting the importance of hygiene and convalescence.11 Seacole also described how European military doctors taught her Western medical knowledge and diagnostic skills, such as recognizing early symptoms of cholera. Combining the two became “the blended care that Mary Seacole provided.”12

Seacole connected her Caribbean world to the Crimean peninsula by making the medical and entrepreneurial knowledge she acquired in one sphere relevant to the other. This juxtaposition reveals the main purpose of Seacole’s detailed account of her Caribbean period: “to justify her experiences there as a pre-ordained rehearsal that naturalises her role in the Crimea as a seasoned performer.”13 Thus the moral and physical trials she voluntarily endured in a West Indies scene plagued by disease and violence enabled her to refine her medical and entrepreneurial faculty in such a way as to prepare her for service in the Crimean War, the role she suggests she was born to perform. The West Indies became a stepping stone that validated her transition to the Crimean peninsula, and readers who felt Seacole’s presence in Central America to be justified “would be led to accept her presence on the Crimean battlefields as equally necessary.”14

In the Crimea, she battled the disease and moral corruption that plagued her British sons. In London, she battled mid-Victorian racism by recounting her Crimean adventures with an inherently performative understanding of her own identity.15 Wonderful Adventures seeks to problematize race through a two-stage performance. First, Seacole disrupts the notion of whiteness as the idealized English mother in the Crimea. She then unsettles conventional notions of blackness by reconfiguring it as a cultural signifier associated with English and Creole medicine.16

Seen from this perspective, her career as a nurse and doctress may well be considered as African-Jamaican-European-inspired, in some sense a global model for treating the sick and wounded. All this, together with her parentage, cosmopolitan Jamaican upbringing, followed by constant international travel, must be considered crucial elements in Seacole becoming a “global nurse extraordinaire.”17

However, Seacole never performed anything akin to regular hospital nursing, nor even claimed to have done so. She was a businesswoman, initially a lodging house proprietor and later, during the Crimean War, ran a restaurant and catering service for officers. She was also an herbalist, a “doctress” in her own terms, and was generous in giving away remedies to those who could not pay.18 It can be safely assumed that the care delivered by Seacole was grounded in folk medicine. Folk medicine consists of the healing practices and ideas of body physiology and health preservation known to some in a culture, transmitted informally as general knowledge, and practiced or applied by anyone in the culture having prior experience. Whether her contribution in general was sufficient to warrant elevation to the status of pioneer nurse is open to wider interpretation; nonetheless it shifts the meaning of how nursing was defined at the time.

Various publications have served to make public the work of Mary Seacole and her contributions to society and the Crimean War. Nevertheless, her entrepreneurship needs to be acknowledged. She was never hesitant to charge people for the cost of “necessities” she provided in her role as nurse; thus her ability to balance the needs of the sick with her own need to make a living is evident.19 To claim that Mary Seacole was not a hero or pioneer in any way would be to belittle what she set out to achieve in terms of providing care on the battlefield. Her autobiographical book provides evidence of her contribution.20 It is thus appropriate to affirm that Seacole has a place in nursing history and should be credited for what she achieved. A better approach would be to acknowledge her achievements and reinterpret the history in a constructive manner focusing on these achievements. Nurses today have much to learn from Mary Seacole.



  1. McDonald, Lynn. “Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole on Nursing and Health Care”. Journal of Advanced Nursing 70, no. 6 (2014): 1436-1444.
  2. Seacole, Mary. The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, forward by Harriet Washington. (New York: Kaplan Publishing, 2009), 545-546.
  3. Gikandi, Simon. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism. (New York: Columbia UP, 1996), 142.
  4. McKay Harmer, Bonnie. Silenced in History: A Historical Study of Mary Seacole (Michigan: ProQuest Publishers, 2010), 78.
  5. Ibid, 73.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Seacole, 42.
  8. Ibid, 13-14.
  9. Ibid, 1.
  10. Holmes, Rachel. Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of Queen Victoria’s Most Eminent Military Doctor. (New York: Random House, 2002).
  11. Staring-Derks, Corry, Staring, Jeroen and Anionwu, Elizabeth N. ‘Mary Seacole: Global Nurse Extraordinaire’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 71 No 3 (2015): 514-525.
  12. McKay Harmer, 125.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Om, Donghee. The Black, British Atlantic: Blackness in Victorian literature. (Unpublished doctoral thesis, 2014), 87.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Staring-Derks et al., 519.
  18. Ibid, 519.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Seacole



  • Gikandi, Simon. 1996. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism.  New York: Columbia UP.
  • Holmes, Rachel. 2002. Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of Queen Victoria’s Most Eminent Military Doctor. New York: Random House.
  • McDonald, Lynn. 2104. “Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole on Nursing and Health Care”. Journal of Advanced Nursing 70, no. 6: 1436-1444.
  • McKay Harmer, Bonnie. 2010. Silenced in History: A Historical Study of Mary Seacole Michigan: ProQuest Publishers.
  • Om, Donghee. 2014.  The Black, British Atlantic: Blackness in Victorian literature. Unpublished doctoral thesis.
  • Seacole, Mary. 2009. The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, forward   by
  • Harriet Washington. New York: Kaplan Publishing.
  • Staring-Derks, Corry, Staring, Jeroen and Anionwu, Elizabeth N. 2015. ‘Mary Seacole: Global
  • Nurse Extraordinaire’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 71 No 3: 514-525.



MARIELLA SCERRI, B.Sc Nursing, B.A English, PGCE, M.A, is currently a teacher of English. She is a former staff nurse and worked in the cardiology department at Mater Dei Hospital, Malta before commencing her teaching post. She holds a Masters in English Language and is reading for a PhD in Medical Humanities at Leicester University. She is also a member of the HUMS programme at the University of Malta.


Winter 2020  |  Sections  |  Nursing

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