Lies, damned lies and statistics’ has nothing on the campaign (overwhelmingly successful) to depict Jamaican businesswoman and Crimean War celebrity Mary Seacole as a medal-winning, daredevil battlefield nurse, who built a hotel, or a clinic, or a combined hotel and clinic, to nurse wounded soldiers (from battles she never saw) and later went on to become the pioneer nurse practitioner and invent modern nursing; claims made in a nursing journal article and a biography, respectively.
The perpetrators of such misinformation are well meaning: Nursing leaders, NHS officials, the Royal College of Nursing, the Department of Education, the National Portrait Gallery, National Science Museum, National Army Museum and teachers from KS-1 and KS-2 to GCSE teachers and examiners. Their goals are to teach racial equality and provide a model for black minority ethic nurses, pupils and people generally. Laudable objects, but the problem is that Mary Seacole did not do most of the things attributed to her – while some of them Florence Nightingale did do.
Moreover Seacole never claimed any of these feats in her highly readable memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857, available in many editions with grossly inaccurate introductions. That book gives, after briefly describing her early life in Jamaica, her truly wonderful adventures in the Caribbean and Panama. She took over the running of her mother’s élite boarding house (a small hotel) in Kingston, and operated a small hotel in Panama for men travelling across the isthmus (pre-Canal) to join the California Gold Rush. Her father was a Scottish soldier, her mother Creole and her husband (who died young) British. Seacole travelled with two black servants, a maid and a porter. She called herself ‘yellow’ to indicate her light complexion: she was one quarter white and had a white clientele in all her businesses.
Some accounts blame Nightingale’s associates not her – for Seacole’s rejection as a Crimean War nurse, and some blame the British government, again with varying numbers of rejection, from one to four. The difficulty here is that Seacole never applied for a nurse’s job at all. She went to England in September 1854 to look into her failing gold stocks, by coincidence arriving just after the first battle of the Crimean War. By the time she gave up on her gold stocks (she had invested while in Panama), not only had Nightingale and her team left, but so had a second team. Seacole described dropping into various offices informally and asking for a position. She never submitted the required application with references (they are at the National Archives, Kew), nor had she the required hospital experience.
Seacole, in fact, never nursed a day in any hospital before or after the Crimean War. She made her own ‘herbal’ preparations, for sale to walk-in customers. Their success, too, has been boosted from remedies for tummy aches to cures for cholera and yellow fever – again, claims she never made. Indeed, she acknowledged that she had made ‘lamentable blunders’ on cholera, which she shuddered to think about. And so she might, given that she added substances that dehydrate the body when rehydration is needed. She was in this respect, no worse than many doctors of the time, but mercury and lead do not cure cholera or yellow fever. Her mustard poultices (to cause sweating), emetics and purging through the bowels are all known (now) to be harmful.
Seacole gave a whole chapter in her memoir to a yellow fever epidemic in Kingston. She courageously and kindly stayed up all night with the dying victims, putting screens around them, giving comfort until all died. This surely deserves great commendation, but the mythmakers turn her into a miracle worker who saved them.
The NHS, as the major employer of BAME staff in Britain, has reason to seek a black model to celebrate. But they did not look carefully. They ignored an outstanding Nigerian nurse, Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (1915-92), the first BAME nurse in the NHS. Pratt came to London to train at the Nightingale School, seeing Nightingale as a model. It was her husband, a Nigerian pharmacist who had begun medical training in London, at Bart’s, who made the approach to the matron on her behalf. Mrs. Pratt was accepted and started training in 1946.
Pratt was on duty at St Thomas’ Hospital when the NHS officially opened in June 1948. She was an outstanding student (the documentation is available at the London Metropolitan Archives). She passed with honours, took extra certificates (midwifery, tropical diseases, administration) and passed the final state examinations in 1949.
British nursing leaders encouraged her to go back to (pre-independence) Nigeria to assist in founding the nursing profession there. This she did, and went on to give leadership in international organizations. None of this, apparently, is known to the NHS or British nursing leaders.
Nor do NHS leaders, especially the ill-named NHS ‘Leadership Academy’, seem to know that it was Nightingale who articulated the vision of the NHS quality care for all, regardless of ability to pay – and the integration of health promotion and disease prevention with treatment. Nightingale called for this in 1866, and worked mightily over the next decades to effect the first steps, notably by getting trained nurses into the workhouse infirmaries, and, for some infirmaries, better, safer buildings. It is inconceivable that the NHS could have come into being in 1948, as it did, without those earlier, gradual, reforms, for when she started at least 80 per cent of hospital patients were in workhouse infirmaries, not the regular hospitals. Workhouse infirmaries then had no trained nurses, only an occasional medical attendance, and bed sharing was still common.
Yet it is Seacole’s massive statue that is located on the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, home of the first nurse training school in the world, not Nightingale’s. The statue faces the Houses of Parliament, although it was Nightingale who lobbied Cabinet ministers, prime ministers and MPs for improvements in health care. A peer, Lord Crisp, former chief executive of the NHS, called for Seacole to be added to the 2020 Bicentenary in honour of Nightingale’s birth. Asked what Seacole had done for the NHS or health care, he had no reply.
How many schools teach the Seacole propaganda is not known for, although both Nightingale and Seacole are in the National Curriculum, there is no requirement that they be taught, either separately or together. Typically, from an examination of school websites, the two are taught together and the contrast between them made. Schools that teach misinformation range from regular state schools to Roman Catholic and Church of England schools and fee-paying schools.
In a world of ‘fake facts,’ do we need more? Should students writing GCSE examinations in History be required to regurgitate misinformation about Seacole? Should books for school children portray her as a battlefield nurse, complete with blue-and-white nurse’s uniform (although she never wore one)? Should she be depicted in battle scenes of battles she never saw? Such books do exist, and indeed you can purchase a flagrant example at the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’ Hospital.
Not the least harm done by avid Seacole supporters in denigrating Nightingale is losing her as a model, for she was not only the founder of nursing, but an effective political activist (she got laws changed) and researcher (the first woman Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society). Are politically effective, mathematically adept women so thick on the ground as to dispense with her?
Lynn McDonald, PhD, LLD (hon), professor emerita, is the author of Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, Iguana Books, 2014.
This article is in the current edition of the Salisbury Review (out now)