Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth (Toronto: Iguana Books, 2014) debunks claims made by supporters of the Jamaican businesswoman and ‘doctress,’ Mary Seacole (1805-81), that she was the ‘real heroine of the Crimean War’ and ‘original lady with the lamp,’ a ‘pioneer nurse’ and even a ‘pioneer of health care,’ as the U.K. Department of Health has named her. In so much literature now she is either an equal to Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), or better. For some, Seacole should replace her.
The book draws on the considerable primary sources available on both women, material largely ignored by Seacole boosters. It uses Seacole’s own fascinating memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857, and letters and journal notes by officers, medical doctors and other observers during the Crimean War (1854-56).
A chapter describes that war, with its miserable conditions and high death rates, and shows what each woman did. A chapter each reports the major work of each woman. Chapter 5 refutes ten distinct myths that appear frequently in print, television and the electronic media: of Seacole’s heroine status, her winning medals, discovering a remedy for cholera and being discriminated against as a ‘black nurse’ (she was three quarters white, had a white husband, white business partner and an entirely white clientele, and often used racial slurs).
Chapter 6 gives excerpts from Seacole’s still engaging Wonderful Adventures. They show her kindness and spunk—her life is worthy of celebration—but she was not a heroine on the battlefield and won no medals—she was present at precisely three battles, after the fighting. Excerpts show her use of toxic substances (lead and mercury) and her acknowledgment of ‘lamentable blunders.’ Others show her running her business of catering officers’ dinners—contrary to the popular myth that she ran a hospital where she nursed ordinary soldiers.
Primary sources cited in the book show—again contradicting numerous sources—cordiality between Nightingale and Seacole, both on the one occasion they met (for about five minutes) and in Nightingale’s commendation of her later, typically ignored by Seacole commentators.
The last chapter proposes an alternative way to encourage diversity in nursing, with sketches of five minority women who made signal contributions to the profession and did not repudiate their own racial background.
Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth is meticulously documented throughout. Substantial research was undertaken in the book’s preparation, the results of which appear here for the first time. Seacole, it argues, should be recognized for what she in fact did, and not given credit for Nightingale’s work.
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