Jamaican-native Mary Jane Seacole, was a nurse highly recognized for her work in the Crimean War. Born in 1805, she was taught herbal remedies and folk medicine as a child. Her mother operated a boarding house for disabled European soldiers and sailors. She traveled to London to volunteer her medical services to the British War Office. She was rejected due to prevailing views on nursing at the time. Britain soon changed its views on allowing nurses to contribute to the war effort. Despite bringing letters of recommendation from doctors in Jamaica and Panama racial biases thwarted her attempts to assist the army. Florence Nightingale refused to select her as one of the 38 nurses who would aid the British. Undaunted, Seakale applied to the Crimean Fund, a fund raised by public subscription to support the wounded in Crimea, but again she was met with refusal. Seacole finally resolved to travel to Crimea using her own resources, in order to open a British Hotel. Through a partnership With Caribbean acquaintance, Thomas Day, she assembled a stock of supplies, and embarked on a voyage to Constantinople. Arriving at Nightingale’s hospital with a letter of introduction, her offer of help was again refused. At a place she christened Spring Hill, near the British camp She built a hotel from salvaged materials using hired local labor. Her new British Hotel opened in March 1855. The building was stocked with provisions shipped from London. Seacole sold anything “from a needle to an anchor” to army officers and visiting sightseers. Meals were served at the Hotel, which also provided outside catering. Despite constant thefts, and problems with credit customers, Seakale’s establishment opened six days a week and prospered. She dealt with callers’ medical complaints, and visited casualties. The Times newspaper wrote approvingly of her work.”Mrs. Seacole doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success.” Drawn back to London by the prospect of rendering medical assistance in the Franco-Prussian War, Seacole approached Sir Harry Verney, brother-in-law of Florence Nightingale. Her efforts were likely sabotaged by a letter from Nightingale accusing Seacole of running a brothel in Crimea. This charge was unfounded and based on Nightingale’s belief in her social superiority. Though she sent nurses to assist at the Land Transport Hospital, close to Seacole’s Hotel, Nightingale prevented association between her nurses and Seacole. In spite of Nightingale’s efforts, Seacole overcame racism and excelled in her work. Seacole died in 1881 at her home in Paddington, London. She was remembered in the Caribbean, where she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991. British buildings and organizations now commemorate her by name. Eventually even Nightingale would come to acknowledge Seacole’s work. When Seacole faced bankruptcy after the war, Nightingale was an anonymous donor to Seacole’s Testimonial Fund.
——Originally Posted 26th February 2012 by Kamau Ujuzi