A letter to the editors of Quay Books
August 28, 2016
Dear Ms Linssen and Colleagues:
We are writing with concerns about the egregious misinformation published in a book of yours, Austyn Snowden, et al., eds., Pioneering Theories in Nursing, 2010, in the article by Sue Royce on Mary Seacole and Snowden’s own introductory chapter. Your website claims: “Our content is always current and of the highest quality,” an undertaking belied by this material. Sadly, much misinformation has been published on Seacole, but this book is possibly the worst, i.e., by the number and extremity of claims entirely unsupported by primary sources, and indeed countered by primary sources.
These are not matters of difference of opinion or interpretation, the usual stuff of academic debate. Medical science journals now retract articles that are flagrantly wrong, such as by falsifying data. Royce’s and Snowden’s material is of that ilk.
There are three ways of falsifying data: inventing it, altering it, and ignoring or deleting disagreeable data. All three apply here. Pictures help, too, such as those on the dust cover, of Nightingale, Seacole and two others, making Seacole into one of the four leading nursing pioneers.
Snowden’s Chapter 1 lists Nightingale, Seacole and Robb together. Nightingale was the original pioneer and first theorist; Robb did important work some 40 years later, founding nursing schools, teaching nursing and producing three books on nursing, all building on Nightingale (she certainly deserves to be covered), but Seacole contributed nothing to nursing or nursing theory.
Snowden’s view that Nightingale was not a theorist is unusual; a large number of nursing theory books list her as the first. Snowden makes Nightingale and Seacole to be equals here, neither doing theory. (Robb was not a theorist, but used Nightingale’s environmental theory.)
“On her way to meet her cousin at the battlefields, she made a detour to visit Nightingale’s hospital at Scutari. Fluir (2006). Seacole was on her way to meet her business partner, a relative of her late husband, not on the battlefield (he was not a soldier) but at Balaclava, their purpose to establish a business. The reference to Fluir, Mary Seacole’s Maternal Personae in Victorian Literature and Culture Cambridge University Press USA 2006 could not be found. Presumably a journal article by Fluhr is intended.
“She did not actually meet Nightingale as she was ‘distracted by her meetings with old colleagues and caring for the wounded soldiers.” In her memoir, Seacole described a short meeting with Nightingale, when she asked for a bed for the night. She recorded Nightingale’s reply: “’What do you want, Mrs Seacole—anything that we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy’” (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, p 91). The hospital was crowded, but a bed was found, with the laundress. This favour is made to be an insult: “She was allowed to stay the night but was required to sleep with the washerwomen rather than with the nurses.” There was no general nurses’ quarters, but they were split up in several, crowded, rooms.
Snowden’s introduction states: “Section One discusses the pioneers such as Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole who carved out the role of the nurse and professionalised it,” as if Nightingale and Seacole were both pioneer nurses, when Mrs Seacole, a generous and respected businesswoman, was not a nurse at all, let alone a pioneer nurse, nor ever claimed to be. The closest she comes is calling herself “doctress, nurse and mother,” but she reserved the title “nurse” for Nightingale and her nurses (see her excellent memoir).
Seacole did not nurse one day in any hospital, in the U.K., the Crimea, Jamaica or Panama. Name one! She did not write a book or article on nursing, teach or mentor a nurse. Name one! How, then, did she “professionalise” the role?
“Sue Royce comes to the conclusion that Western medicine was not ready for assertive healers like Seacole. In fact it took active steps to discourage her. Nightingale and Seacole and Seacole were in Scutari at the same time, but it appears Nightingale had no role for her there. Far from being put off by this, Seacole instead headed for the front line where she delivered care to soldiers on the battlefield. This persistence in the face of adversity is certainly a common theme amongst these early pioneers.”
Again, this treatment of the two as equals belies what is known from primary sources. Seacole is clear in her memoir that she stopped for the night at Scutari, visited at Nightingale’s Barrack Hospital and asked for a meeting with Nightingale. Of course Nightingale had “no role” for her there, nor did Seacole ask for any! She had purchased supplies for a business and was en route to meet her business partner and start it, as is clear in her book.
The “front line” claim is exaggeration, not invention. Seacole was on the battlefield on 3 occasions (she gives the dates), giving first aid after selling wine and sandwiches to spectators.
“Theory. Although Mary did not write about her nursing as did other nursing theorists, she did highlight many important issues.” None is named, and we do not know of any. Any examples?
Royce, in her Chapter 2, has Seacole being “rejected,” as do many other sources. If Seacole’s statement is carefully read, however, it is clear that she never submitted the required application and references (they are at the National Archives, Kew), but dropped in casually in numerous offices, all too late. Seacole acknowledged that Nightingale’s nursing team had already left, but hoped to go on a later one – but was too late for that, too. She was busy in her first two months in London attending to her gold investments, as she explained in her memoirs, a point omitted.
“Some army doctors were suspicious of her at first; fortunately others realised her skills and talents and utilised them fully.” Not one such doctor is named. Many doctors published their memoirs, journals and correspondence. Mrs Seacole, when mentioned, is described favourably, for her food and catering, never for nursing (examples are given in Lynn McDonald, Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, 2014). No doctor invited her into his hospital, as Seacole made clear in her memoir. Name one! The hospital closest to her business was the Land Transport Corps. She visited there as a volunteer, taking around Punch magazine, and, on New Year’s Day, 1856, plum pudding and mince tarts. This was much appreciated, but hardly constitutes nursing. The hospital was nursed by Nightingale nurses, set up by Nightingale on the request of the commandant and principal medical officer.
Royce asks, rhetorically: “Why do we not have women healers like Mary Seacole today?” Healer? Mrs Seacole admitted “lamentable blunders” in her “remedies” (p 31); certainly her addition of lead and mercury to “herbal remedies” would qualify, as her use of emetics, purging and blistering, all of which dehydrate, now recognized as the wrong thing to do for bowel patients. (She was no worse than many doctors in this, but to make this into “healing” is wrong.)
There are also minor factual errors, such as her going bankrupt in the Crimea in 1856, when it was back in England, in 1857, that this happened; that she was the “toast of 19th century London society” is exaggeration.
These numerous and extreme errors, we propose, require retraction at the earliest possible. A statement should be made in the preface that the material was found to be based on faulty sources and has, consequently, been retracted.
Yours sincerely (signed by 14 members of the Nightingale Society)