Mary Seacole became a celebrity in British culture for nursing in the Crimea, then seemly disappeared from modern memory. Only in recent years did she resurface, due to the republishing of her book “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands”. It tells her story of the Crimea, her nursing skills but more importantly, medicine in the 19th century: the attitudes, behaviors and relationships to the patients in 19th century medicine and nursing.
Mary Seacole opens her book with how she grew up in Jamaica, with her mother being a doctress, a person who was well versed in tropical diseases and herbal remedies to treat them. Mary’s mother had an impressive clientele of British elite and officers, along with their wives. This shows a lot of respect for nursing, although she was technically under another profession. Mary would learn these skills from her mother, and would later put these kills to practice, using any willing participant as a guinea pig, from cat and dogs to herself. She would later confess in her book that she was confident in her skills by saying… “And here I may take the opportunity of explaining it was from a confidence in my own powers, and not at all from necessity, that I remained an unprotected female” (p.16). Another way the importance of nursing is shown in her work is the response to the war in Crimea. There was a call for nurses to travel there, to help with the casualties of the war. Miss Nightingale was one of the nurses that answered the call for nurses, and staffed a hospital in turkey, in the city of Constantinople. There were a lot of interviews to find eligible nurses to go to Crimea, almost showing a reverence for the profession. How Mary fits in is that once she was turned away from an interview with one of the staffing nurses under Miss Nightingale, she decided to go to Crimea her own way. This became a blessing in disguise, as there was an outbreak of cholera around the time Mary Seacole got there, stating in the book that “I love to be service to those who need a woman’s help. And wherever the need arises-on whatever distant shore- I ask no greater or higher privilege then to administer to it” (p.31). She helped the soldiers with the outbreak, and then headed to where the battle front was. Here, she made her own hotel, a restaurant, grocery store and clinic all in one. She called it “The British Hotel”, showing that she is there to help her “sons”, as she refers to British soldiers throughout her book.
Through Miss Nightingale and Mary Seacole, we see contrasting behaviors of nurses in this period. Miss Nightingale went to Crimea to have order in the face of chaos, and supposedly had her nurses under an iron fist. She is well known for her sanitation practices: washing hands, cleaning floors and equipment, as to not spread infectious diseases. She allowed no contact with patients, hers or the patients of nurses under her, to create a boundary and place of professionalism in her hospital. Mary, however had a very hands on approach, hugging those she knows when visiting Miss Nightingale’s hospital to stay overnight. She would touch the patients, to sooth them if they are in distress or to dress their wounds, hug them in greeting and even hold them in their passing so they are reassured that they aren’t alone. Her approach was more wholesome, as she would tailor her care to each solider, as no two need are the same. She would also feed them, cooking for them and selling goods in her store, and reassure them as stated before. This care isn’t just extended to soldiers, but also to infants. She recounts the passing of an infant from disease, how she held them in her arms and prayed to God to spare them, stating that…”It may seem strange, but it is a fact, that I thought more of that little child then I did of the men who were struggling for their lives, and prayed very earnestly and solemnly to God to spare it” (p.33). She also remembers treating two Russian soldiers, one gave her his ring as thanks, while the other succumbed to his wounds but was reassured by her presence as he died. Her one on one care couldn’t be done in the hospital, as there were too many patients and not many nurses for this approach to be possible. However, Miss Nightingale did make rounds at night, checking on patients and their wellbeing with a lamp, earning her nickname “Lady with the Lamp” (citation?). One thing that Miss Nightingale did not like was the fact that Mary Seacole sold and allowed the consumption of alcohol in her establishment. Since she didn’t sell any alcohol herself, she was offended by this fact. There could also be another and more personal reason, as I will soon discuss
The most interesting contrast between Mary Sea Cole and Miss Nightingale was their relationships to their patients and the soldiers. Mary had a familial approach, saying it was bittersweet to say goodbye at the war’s end, stating in her book that… “I linger behind, and stooping down, once more gathered little tufts of grass, and some simple blossoms from above the graves of some who have in life been very kind to me, and I left behind, in exchange, a few tears that were sincere” (p.168).The soldiers also call her mother, and she recounts one of these instances as follows… “More frequently than was agreeable, a shot would come ploughing up the ground and raising clouds of dust, or a shell whiz above us. Upon these occasions those around would cry out ‘Lie down, mother, lie down!’ and with very undignified and unladylike haste I had to embrace the earth” (p. 136). Miss Nightingale sees herself as mother of the British Army, so it is understandable that she may feel threatened by Mary’s new status as “mother” to the troops, instead of being offended by the alcohol use as previously stated.
There are three prevalent themes in the novel, the attitudes, behaviors and relationships between nurses and patients in the 19th century. Through her book, Mary mentions these three things around her, and mentions where she fits. She has become a pioneer in her own right, since she’s faced battle and introduced undiscovered remedies to the western world, as much as how Florence Nightingale pioneered modern nursing. Through her eyes, we see how medicine and nursing has evolved since then, and how she became the Angel of Crimea.
Seacole, Mary. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.1857. Penguins Classics, 2005.