Posts filed under “Museums”

To Ian Blatchford, director, The Science Museum

To: Ian Blatchford, director
Science Museum
November 13, 2016

re: Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine. Mary Seacole (1805-81)

Dear Mr Blatchford

We are puzzled as to why a Science Museum would have even a short item on its web resource Exploring the History of Medicine on someone not known for any scientific achievement, Mary Seacole, fine person and celebrity that she was.

That this short entry should be laced with factual errors is astonishing. People expect a Science Museum to have a serious regard for research standards, at least basic fact checking, but your few correct points are surrounded by exaggerations and actual errors. As well, the visual chosen is misleading. It shows Seacole wearing medals she did not win, omitting that relevant point. Herewith evident factual errors.

1. You call her a “Nurse,” but Seacole did not do anything resembling nursing, nor ever claimed to have. She frequently used the term “doctress” as a descriptor, and once “doctress, nurse and mother” (in her Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, p 124). The term “nurse,” however, she reserved for Nightingale and her nurses.

2. You have her learning “medicine and nursing” from her mother, but she called her mother an “admirable doctress” (p 2), meaning a herbalist, and never mentioned learning nursing from her.

3. She “helped soldiers during the Crimean War.” Yes, but her main activity was a business serving officers, where she charged commercial prices for her fine food, wine, catering, etc. The first aid she gave to soldiers was confined to 3 days, post-battle, when she went onto the battlefield after selling wine and sandwiches to spectators. Your account makes it look like helping soldiers was her main activity.

4. Her husband was a “naval officer.” No, he was a merchant. The two ran a store together in Jamaica.

5. “She spent a lot of time nursing in Panama.” But if you look at her book, the “nursing,” was limited to outbreaks of epidemics. Her main work was a store.

6. “At the start of the Crimean War in 1853 she went to London to offer her services.” No, Turkey and Russia were at war with each other in 1853, but Britain only joined in March 1854, and the army reached the Crimea only in September 1854. Seacole went back to Panama on business after Britain declared war, and only went to London in September 1854, and that for business reasons (see her memoir, Chapter 8).

7. “Her application to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing team was turned down.” No. Nightingale had already left by the time Seacole decided that she wanted to go, too (pp 73-76). It is a bit much to say that she was turned down when she never handed in the necessary application and references. Instead, after Nightingale had left, Seacole dropped into various offices informally, seeking a post, but too late. The second team had left, too. There was no “team” to go with when she (informally) applied!

8. Instead of giving up, she went “at her own expense.” But why should anyone else pay for her? She and her partner had plans to open a business.

9. Their “roughly built hotel.” No, Seacole announced the intention of opening a “mess table with comfortable quarters” (p 81) for officers, but, on the advice of Alexis Soyer, kept the business to food, wine, catering, etc., no overnight stays. There was NO hotel.

10. The “popular canteen serving good food.” Really? Seacole’s book gives 3 chapters to the food and wine she served officers, but not a word as to what was served in the “canteen for the soldiery” (p 114).

11. “She would take mules with food, wine and medicines across country to the battlefield front lines.” Hardly: she did this on 3 occasions, dates given; you make it sound like a regular activity, when it was 3 times in a two-year war (she missed the first 3, major, battles of the war, busy in London on her business interests).

12. “She obtained special passes.” No, the day after the last battle, on the fall of Sebastopol, she got a special pass to enter the city. Once. Further, her memoir makes it clear that this expedition was largely social (p 173). She also picked up a fair bit of “plunder.” You do exaggerate!

13. She looked after “the wounded and dying on both sides.” On 3 occasions.

14. She went bankrupt by “debts run up by soldiers at the British Hotel.” No. Nor did she ever say so. They had leftover stock and could not sell it when the army returned to England. The debts at the business were unpaid bills by customers, i.e., officers and the war correspondent.

If you really wanted to pursue the “History of Medicine” theme, you might want to explore Seacole’s use of lead and mercury, her dehydration of bowel patients when rehydration is needed (not then known). She herself admitted making “lamentable blunders” in her remedies (p 31), a topic that would be worth pursuing but you do not even mention this.

Finally, the Bibliography cites only sources that praise Seacole, several of which give grossly exaggerated accounts of her work. More careful sources, which cite primary sources, are available. See Lynn McDonald, Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, 2014 and a website

Sincerely yours

[ 17 members of the Nightingale Society ]

To the Trustees of the Nightingale Museum

To: Natasha McEnroe, please forward to all Trustees
Dame Christine Beasley, chair
Professor Ian Norman, vice-chair
Jon Card
Colin Brough
Alastair Gourlay
Jonathan Rounce
Chloe Sheppard
Janet Vitmayer OBE
Baroness Mary Watkins

7 November 2016

Dear Dame Christine and Trustees

Lt Col Raugh, jr., and Major Robins have forwarded your response of October 26, 2016, to the rest of the co-signers. We appreciate your willingness to consider constructive criticism, and hence respond together, on two points.

1. The film with Helen Rappaport: none of us has been able to see it, but we question why a person would be chosen who has three publications on Nightingale/Seacole which all denigrate Nightingale, and one even accuses her of racism, and attribute false accomplishments to Seacole. Details below. Unless Rappaport apologized in the film, and retracted her published statements, we wonder why she would be given yet another platform. The fact that she is a member of the Crimean War Research Society does not absolve her from the responsibility of checking facts. Anyone can join the society, which includes many amateur historians.

2. We did not say that your material on Cavell and Soyer was inaccurate, but incomplete, omitting their significant connections, especially Soyer’s, with Nightingale. We would expect a Florence Nightingale Museum to make those interesting connections.

2001. Rappaport, Helen. An Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers. 2 vols. Santa Barbara CA: ABC Clio.

Nightingale is said to have “declined an invitation to join the London National Society for Women Suffrage in 1867″ (2:492), although she signed it, and many other petitions for the vote. (Helen Taylor thanked her for her prompt signature and Clementia Taylor sent her a receipt for her dues.)

Rappaport fell for Hugh Small’s erroneous account of Nightingale’s hospital having the highest death rates, without one table or chart or one firm statistic!. Rappoport took his speculation as fact: “But the reality of Nightingale’s sense of personal failure and despair is a far more compelling story, recently uncovered by Hugh Small.”

She is sarcastic that Nightingale was “supposedly sole pioneer of women’s nursing in Britain” (2:486-87), although Nightingale always gave great credit to other nurses, especially Mary Jones, Agnes Jones, Sarah Wardroper, A.L. Pringle and Florence Lees. Rappaport is mistaken on Nightingale’s religion, calling her Unitarian, when she was evangelical Church of England.

Rappaport’s item on Seacole in the same publication is wildly inaccurate in the other direction, “Seacole, Mary (1805-1881) Jamaica,” 2:631-3. There she credits Seacole with going to the Crimea “to pioneer the nursing of the sick and wounded during the war of 1854-1856,” Nightingale’s work! Seacole only went in the spring of 1855, to run a business.

There are unfounded statements: “For many years, Seacole’s unique contribution to the development of nursing and the treatment of tropical diseases lay buried.” What “unique contribution”? Her “remedy” for cholera included toxic substances and dehydrated the patient (WA 31).

Rappaport falsely stated that Seacole looked after “sick British soldiers at the military camp at Up-Park Town, near Kingston,” when she herself stated that she was asked to, but did not (WA 63).

False again, that, “When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, she realized her moment had come and immediately sailed for England, where she offered her services to the War Office.” Her own account shows that, when war was declared, she went back to Panama on business, went on to London in September 1854, and only began to seek a post as nurse after 2 months or more on business (WA 73-76). Hardly “immediately sailed”! A convenient Timeline is provided in a peer-reviewed article by McDonald, using sources just as available to Rappaport (“Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole on Nursing and Health Care.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 69,11 (November 2013):1436-44).

Rappaport, worse yet, portrays Nightingale as a racist who refused Seacole’s services, as had the War Office, but Seacole never properly applied: “Florence Nightingale (no doubt for the same reasons of racial prejudice) also declined her offer to join her band of nurses.” Yet Seacole’s own account shows that, when she met Nightingale, at Scutari, she asked for a bed for the night and got one; she was en route to the Crimea to start her business. The actual account, according to Seacole, reads: “‘What do you want, Mrs Seacole–anything that we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy’” (WA 91). Where is the racism?

Rappaport transmogrifies Seacole’s hut for serving food and wine, into a hotel with hospital: “Above the ground floor store and canteen [the canteen was in a separate hut] was a sick bay [non-existent] where she nursed the wounded, dispensed her own herbal medicines and introduced methods of nursing that emphasized cleanliness, plenty of ventilation and an abundance of her own home-cooked food.” But the food was for sale to officers, and the ventilation, in a hut!!! – it was Nightingale who emphasized ventilation. Cleanliness? Not mentioned in Seacole’s book, but there are 3 chapters on the food she sold to officers.

A picture has Seacole at the bedside of a soldier (2:632), but the only times she was at a bedside was when she was distributing magazines, Punch, to the local hospital, where Nightingale’s nurses did the nursing.

2005. “The Invitation that Never Came: Mary Seacole After the Crimea.” History Today 55,2 (February 2005):9-15.

This article has Seacole so important that the queen would want to invite her to a personal meeting, and that there could be only one rational explanation for the queen’s reluctance; someone must have turned the queen’s mind: “There is only one logical candidate to fit the latter argument: Florence Nightingale.” Rappoport invents: “At some stage the queen must, surely, have interrogated Nightingale about the celebrated Mrs Seacole.” There is not a shred of evidence for this bizarre suggestion.

It is sorry enough that the Florence Nightingale Museum did nothing to defend Nightingale when she was attacked as a racist by the BBC, but to give a platform to someone who repeated the accusation is troubling.

Detailed refutations of Hugh Small’s claims are available in peer-reviewed publications by Lynn McDonald, available on her academic website, Some years ago the director agreed to cross-link it with the Museum’s website. But this has yet to happen.

2007. No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. London: Aurum.

In this book, Rappaport accords Seacole medals she never won, nor ever claimed to have won them (she wore them, but in her book is clear that she did not win any, and the picture of her on the cover shows no medals). Nightingale gets sarcasm: “Miss Nightingale Queens It with Absolute Power”; a picture shows the Crimean medal with 4 clasps (Alma, Balaclava, Inkermann and Sebastopol–for the siege); Seacole did not win the medal and was not even in the Crimea for the 3 battles listed, and missed the first half of the siege of Sebastopol. This is misinformation by picture, not history.

We would be happy to provide a briefing on the subject and/or to debate Rappaport or anyone else you wish at the Museum.

Sincerely yours
[signed by 17 members of the Nightingale Society]

From Dame Christine Beasley, Chair, Florence Nightingale Museum

Dear Professor McDonald,

Thank you for your letter, which the Board and I read with interest. We always welcome constructive criticism from members of the Nightingale community, or indeed from any of our visitors.

To answer a few of your points:

The museum shop:

We offer a changing range of books, which usually includes those of FN’s own writings which are available and in print, Notes on Nursing and Notes on Hospitals are especially popular. We do not sell any DVDs and have not for five years – in general, people don’t use DVDs anymore, tending to use digital formats instead.

The Workhouse exhibition:

The reason for having this exhibition was specifically because of FN’s wonderful work with pauper nursing. I am surprised you found no Nightingale associations when you visited this exhibition. Nightingale’s work on workhouses and also on statistics are areas of particular interest to our visitors.


We offer a free lecture on FN and her life weekly, something we find very popular with our visitors, as well as guided tours and talks for booked groups. Our changing events programme tends to be themed, so this summer has focussed on the collaboration with Great Ormond Street, another major London hospital with a fascinating collection of Peter Pan memorabilia. Our next season is examining male identity of soldiers in the Crimean war through their facial hair. You might like to look at the website for details.

Thank you in particular for your comments of suggested alterations and additions on the website. You will have realised the website is new, we launched it in April this year, and re-writing and tweaking is still ongoing. I am sure you realise that with a small team, who have many calls on their time, this can be a slow process.

I note that the Nightingale Society posts up its correspondence on their website. The Board of Trustees and I are very happy for this reply to be added alongside your original letter, if you think this would be of interest.

Best wishes, and we hope to welcome you and your colleagues at the museum when you are all next in the UK.

Yours sincerely,

Dame Christine Beasley
Natasha McEnroe, Director

To Florence Nightingale Museum trustees

Dame Christine Beasley, chair
Professor Ian Norman
Jonathan Card
Colin Brough
Alastair Gourlay
Jonathan Rounce, CA
Chloe Sheppard
Janet Vitmayer, OBE
Baroness Mary Watkins
copy: Natasha McEnroe, director

Dear Florence Nightingale Museum Trustees

We write with concerns about the poor coverage of Florence Nightingale at the Museum and its trend of becoming a Mary Seacole Museum. We understand the difficulties, with Sir Hugh Taylor avidly promoting the Mary Seacole myth, and the Museum being dependent on the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust for its space. Nonetheless, it is a Nightingale museum for charitable status purposes; people have given money, time and effort to set it up and maintain it.

Herewith some specifics, beginning with Nightingale:

The FN Museum website. Edith Cavell is on the Museum’s website, but with no mention of her connection with Nightingale (she trained at a hospital whose matron Nightingale mentored; she was night superintendent at one where Nightingale not only mentored the matron, but got professional nursing started and a better building built).

Alexis Soyer is also on the Museum’s website, but with only passing mention of Nightingale, yet he worked with her nearly every day for a year on improving nutrition, and wrote much about her in his memoir.

Since this is a Nightingale museum, should not the connections be made?

The bookstore. Last checked, the only book by Nightingale it had available was a bad edition (the only bad edition) of her Notes on Nursing, nothing on her very strong later work. The bookstore has in the past (is it now still?) even sold the BBC film that badly misrepresented her (even opposing the vote for women, when she supported it). Nightingale did excellent work, which deserves to be celebrated – why fall for the cheap shots?

Children’s presentations: some trivialize Nightingale–“my house had 14 bedrooms”; the BBC “documentary,” which portrays Nightingale as a racist (so fallacious the BBC Trustees required it to be removed) has been shown as entertainment. Instead, the Museum should have protested it! It should not sell or use anti-Nightingale material. If you can come up with legitimate, negative, material, do say what.

Exhibitions: understandably, the Museum has to put on numerous exhibitions and they will not all concern Nightingale. However, when the subject does concern Nightingale, no mention is made. The Workhouse exhibition the Museum put on did not mention Nightingale at all, yet workhouse reform generally, and workhouse infirmary nursing reform particularly, were major Nightingale causes, and she was enormously successful. This is part of NHS history. Why not be proud of it?

Lectures: a lot feature Seacole supporters. When was Nightingale last featured? What plans are there for Nightingale material now?

Website on Seacole: it has much material that is simply, factually, wrong, and can be seen to be wrong by consulting Seacole’s own fine memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. It credits her with a cure for cholera, but fails to mention that she added lead and mercury to her “remedies” and admitted “lamentable blunders” (see WA, 31). Her “remedies” indeed would have made bowel patients worse off: emetics, purging and blistering all dehydrate, when cholera and other bowel patients need rehydration.

Your website claims that Seacole had a successful cure for yellow fever, with picked medical herbs; any evidence for its success? What was it?

She stated in her memoir that she was asked to provide nurses to the army hospital at Kingston, but she did not. So why credit her with doing something she did not do?

Nor was she “often in attendance at sick wharf.” She generously and kindly did go to the wharf and gave hot tea to soldiers waiting transport, but that was only while she was waiting for her huts to be built (she was living on a nearby boat). She did not continue this when her business opened.

Your website states: “She stayed in Balaclava as long as the troops were there.” No, nor a claim she made; Nightingale stayed at her hospital until the last soldier was discharged.

You have Seacole giving away “any profit she made,” a total fiction, nor did she ever say this. (Where?) She and her business partner both acknowledged a business error–they restocked lavishly expecting the troops (and the officers, their customers) to stay longer in the Crimea. “My restaurant was always full” (p 178), as Mrs Seacole put it. When the peace treaty was signed, the army went home. They lost their officer customers and the Russians would not buy the stock.

We would be happy to meet with you to provide a briefing on Nightingale and Seacole. We would be happy to debate with Seacole issues any Seacole supporters you care to name: Sir Hugh Taylor, Martin Jennings, Lord Soley! How about it?

Sincerely yours

[14 members of the Nightingale Society]

To seven English museums

The following letter was sent to seven English museums which include exaggerated or distorted information on the life and achievements of Mary Seacole. Institutions and addressees are listed at the end of the page.

Dear Museum Director

Re: False information on Mary Seacole

We are asking you, as other museums with incorrect information in their displays and websites, to correct it.

Museums, as educational institutions, should provide reliable information, not propaganda. You invite school tours and provide websites as background for teaching, and doubtless misinform many pupils, teachers and parents who take advantage of your material.

We entirely agree that the life of Mary Seacole deserves celebration, but on its own merits. She was independent, enjoyed many adventures, was kind and resourceful in difficult circumstances (epidemics in Jamaica and Panama) and during the Crimean War. She left a fine account of them in her Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, reference to which will show how wrong your material is.

Seacole should not be credited with the work Florence Nightingale did, either during the Crimean War or in the founding of the modern nursing profession, hospital reform and the advancement of public health care. Nightingale’s achievements were enormous, and they deserve museum space and time.

We are warning schools, parents and pupils of the shoddy material of your and other museums in TES Connect and the Mary Seacole Information Website. We will be happy to remove the warnings as soon as you remove the erroneous material. We invite use of the Mary Seacole Information Website for further material on the many errors put out about Seacole, and more reliable information:

Yours sincerely
(signed by 17 members of the Nightingale Society)

Letters were sent to:

Janice Murray, director general
National Army Museum
Royal Hospital Road
London SW3 4HT

Director and
Dr Kenny Webster, learning manager, Birmingham Museums
Soho House Museum
Birmingham B18 5LB

Ian Blatchford, director
Science Museum, London
Exhibition Road
London SW7 2DD

Professor Tim Entwistle director & chief executive
Royal Botanic Gardens, and
Botanic Gardens Education Network
Surrey TW9 3AB

Thackray Medical Museum
141 Beckett St, Leeds
West Yorkshire LS9 7LN
Liz Egan

Jack Lonman, director, Museum of London
Noel Hayden, programme manager
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London EC2Y 5HN;

Gunnersbury Park Museum
Popes Lane
London W3 8LQ