The Nightingale Society has sent a number of letters to persons and organisations regarding misinformation about Nightingale’s work and that of Mary Seacole. Except where otherwise specified, the letters are signed by six members of the society (in alphabetical order):
Tom Keighley (Rev) BA (hons), RN, FRCN, nursing management consultant
Eileen Magnello PhD, research fellow, University College, London
Wendy Mathews BA, Grad Dip Phys (ret), former governor GSTT
Lynn McDonald, PhD, LLD (hon), emerita professor, director CWFN
Colin Robins (Major) OBE, MA (Cantab), FRHist, editor emeritus, War Correspondent: Journal of the Crimean War Research Society
Pat Smedley, MSc (Nurs), BA Hons, RGN, former chair, Friends of the Florence Nightingale Museum
They are to:
- Mrs Janice Murray, Director, National Army Museum
- Mr Malcolm Cantello, Mr Alan Lovell, Ms Christina McAnea (respectively president, chief executive and head of healthcare team), UNISON
- Andrea Spyropoulos, president, and Peter Carter, chief executive, Royal College of Nursing
- Professor Martin Hall, Vice-chancellor, University of Salford
- Andrea Spyropoulos, president, and Peter Carter, chief executive, Royal College of Nursing
- Sandy Nairn, CBE, director, National Portrait Gallery
- HRH the Duchess of Cornwall
- Sir Robert McAlpine
- Ms Sharon Ament, Director, Museum of London
- Mr Michael Gentles and Mr Lance Hylton (respectively Postmaster General/CEO and chairman), Postal Corporation of Jamaica
- Mrs Winsome Hudson, Director-General, National Library of Jamaica
- Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health
- Rt Hon Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education
- BBC Complaints (re online resources)
- Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health
- Rt Hon Ed Miliband, Leader of the Official Opposition
- Rt Hon Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party
- All Westminster MPs, re National Curriculum
Mrs Janice Murray, Director
National Army Museum
Royal Hospital Road
London SW3 4HT
September 10, 2012
Dear Mrs Murray
We are pleased to see that several of the errors on the National Army Museum’s website on Mary Seacole have been removed, a good step, for which our thanks, but we must note that serious mistakes remain. We suggest some alternative wordings:
Place of birth: Kingston, Jamaica (why not give her city and country of birth, instead of “West Indies”?)
I learned to be a “doctress” or herbalist from my mother and provided remedies to many people, in Jamaica, Panama and then at the Crimean War.
Omit “nursed thousands through the cholera and yellow fever epidemics.” Not true, she never claimed it (see her Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands).
Omit the sentence “four out of five men would die not in battle but of disease,” for four out of five men did not die, but roughly one out of five, and of these roughly four out of five died from disease, but Seacole could not have known that at the time, as the data were not published until much later. She went to the war out of a sense of patriotism, as she explained in her book. (See www.maryseacole.info/ for page numbers and quotations)
A group of women led by Florence Nightingale (why be coy?)
When I could not join the official team of nurses I went anyway. My business partner and I started a restaurant and store for officers near Balaclava. I also helped ordinary soldiers who came to me for remedies.
Omit the last section. She and her business partner had laid in expensive stores, and of course their huts could not be sold. The fund that paid for her support got its donations from officers, not ordinary soldiers.
The troops called me “Mother Seacole.” Many came to a large festival in my honour at Surrey Gardens in the summer of 1857, It was supposed to make enough money to help me, but did not. I went back to Jamaica for awhile, then returned to London. Some officers kindly started a fund to support me in my old age.
For information on Seacole see: www.maryseacole.info/
for Nightingale: www.uoguelph.ca/~cwfn
A reply would be appreciated: email@example.com
Mr Malcolm Cantello, president; Mr Alan Lovell, chief executive;
Ms Christina McAnea, head, Healthcare team
130 Euston Road
London NW1 2AY
September 25, 2012
Dear Mr Cantello, Mr Lovell and Ms McAnea
We are writing to propose a rethinking of the importance of Florence Nightingale for nursing, for which you, as a major union, play an important role. We were unhappy and somewhat puzzled by the unanimous decision made back in 1999 to “ditch” Nightingale as the most significant founder of nursing, not least of all for the reasons stated. We suspect that those who voted simply did not know what Nightingale said and did to establish the modern profession. We note that the negative statements made about her were repeated in 2007 (“Kick over the Statues”) and on 12 May 2010, International Nurses’ Day.We would be pleased to meet with you or some representatives to pursue these issues. We think that Michael Walker and Wendy Wheeler have a point that the problem may be more in the “interpretation” of Nightingale’s legacy than in the legacy itself. Re-examination of what exactly she said and did would, we believe, lead to quite a different impression (see Did You Know below). There is much in Nightingale’s work that is still relevant today, especially on the principles of public health care, priority to health promotion and disease prevention, concern for occupational health and safety of healthcare workers, good salaries and working conditions.We want also to correct the misunderstandings in circulation on key points regarding Mary Seacole. We do not at all oppose recognition of her for her work, but rather the according to her of false accomplishments, some of them, in fact, Nightingale’s. So much misinformation about Seacole is now in circulation that it would be difficult for even the most fair-minded inquirer to get the story straight. We give as an example the statement made by your then president on becoming a patron of the Seacole Campaign:When Mary Seacole nursed the sick and wounded on the frontline in the Crimea she did not ask for, or expect any reward. She did it for the British troops, who she loved and admired.
But Seacole did not nurse the sick and wounded on the frontline at all, contrary to what is frequently said. Her British Hotel was a restaurant and store for officers, with minimal service to the troops. Seacole was generous to ordinary soldiers, but this was extra, volunteer work (and commendable): her main occupation was “sutler” or “provision merchant,” for which she had a business partner. She invested in the British Hotel, using the proceeds from her previous business of supplying gold miners on their way out to the California Gold Rush.
The website for the “The Mary Seacole (1805-1880) Campaign ‘Turn her into stone’” contains a number of serious errors, including a false accusation that Nightingale rejected Seacole as a nurse:
- Hearing of the poor medical provisions for would soldiers during the Crimean War, Seacole, who arrived in London in 1854, applied to the War Office and relevant authorities,
But Seacole was en route to London on business regarding her gold stocks when the first battle took place, and only then decided, after Nightingale and her nurses departed, that she wanted to go to (see her Wonderful Adventures p 74).
- “She was turned down by all, including one of Florence Nightingale’s nurses,” but Nightingale never heard that she had applied.
- “Later the British Government decided to permit women to travel to the affected area. A party of 38 nurses was chosen by Florence Nightingale. Mary Seacole was not included.” No, the group had already left and Seacole was hoping to go with the second lot of nurses; her exclusion had nothing to do with Nightingale.
- “Instead she borrowed money to make the 4000 mile journey by herself at the age of 50. She set up a store and hotel.” She did not borrow money but used the profits from her last business venture; the “store and hotel” was a restaurant and store, a “mess table” for officers (see WA p 81).
- “Mary Seacole distinguished herself treating battlefield wounded and nursing wounded soldiers from both sides while under fire herself.” Seacole never made such a claim; on 3 occasions she went on to the battlefield, post-battle, with refreshments for sale; she also assisted with first aid. She used the expression “under fire” in quotation marks, as did others—for anyone walking around in the camps was at some risk. On one of her battlefield excursions she mentioned assisting Russians (see p 157).
- The “transcript of a letter” from Sir John Hall cited in the website was not a transcript, but part of Seacole’s own memoir, for which no documented source is known, and it is very unlikely to have been written by Hall (see p 170).
- The excerpt from Russell (although he was not then “Sir”) is correct as far as it goes, but it misleadingly omits his other remarks about her work as a “sutler,” or supplier of provisions, her chief work (see viii).
We must wonder about a union that calls for equal dignity for all attacking someone for her race, class of origin and religion, as Unison’s rejection of Nightingale in 1999 seems to do, for her being “white, middle class and Protestant.” This is the more remarkable when you support Seacole, who was three quarters white, also middle class and Roman Catholic.
We would agree that there are other “founders” of nursing worthy of recognition—Nightingale herself particularly appreciated Mary Jones and Sarah Wardroper. The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale provides information on a number of other worthy leaders.
Nursing leaders of diverse backgrounds of course should be celebrated. Some examples (a start) of African, West Indian and South Asian pioneer nurses are given, with information on Seacole, at http://www.maryseacole.info.
Elizabeth Fry was an early promoter of nursing, but her organization was chiefly for private nursing for the wealthy in their homes. Nor did she promote the development of a profession which Nightingale did. Making her the “founder” of nursing we suspect would be a step backwards.
We look forward to exploring these important issues with you. One of us, Lynn McDonald, lives in Canada but will be in London in the spring; the other three are resident in London and could be available earlier. McDonald, as well as being the one most knowledgeable about Nightingale, is a former Canadian MP (of a sister party to the Labour Party) and a successful advocate on women’s and public health issues.
Attachment to Letter to UNISON, September 25, 2012 from the Nightingale Society
Did You Know?
- That Nightingale did pioneering work on occupational health and safety for nurses;
- That she wanted nursing to be an independent profession; nurses would take medical instructions from doctors, but no doctor would hire, fire, discipline or promote a nurse; those decisions would be made by senior nurses;
- That Nightingale’s vision included a career path, with increases in salary and responsibility, through the ward sister to the superintendent or matron, which was a high paying job? That giving superintendents power to hire, discipline, etc., was to remove it from doctors, then 100% male when nurses were 100% female–it was an unspoken measure to prevent sexual harassment of vulnerable women nurses;
- While Nightingale wrote about “self sacrifice,” she consistently argued for good salaries and working conditions for nurses, holidays of at least a month per year; decent pensions; good living conditions during training; and hospital design to save nurses’ energy for patient care;
- That Nightingale worked mightily to make nurses givers of patient care, instead of hospital cleaners; hospitals should hire cleaners and nurses ensure that the job was done; nurses could not be the cleaners themselves.
- That “nurses,” before Nightingale’s time were not what we would recognize as nurses. In the army they were recruited from among the wives and widows of privates and non-commissioned officers (doctors were always officers), were paid less than cooks and laundresses, and reported to a sergeant. Before Nightingale’s time they would not have even spoken to a doctor; they were subordinate to a sergeant!
Thus the statement that Nightingale wanted nurses to be ”subordinate to doctors” misses the point. When she started her nursing school in 1860, women did not even have a high school education, let alone university. Doctors, with university and medical qualifications, would never have accepted them as equals. Nightingale worked prodigiously to improve the status of nurses, and saw it rise. When she started, “nurses” were listed with “domestic” servants in the Census; by 1901 they were in “medicine.” In the army they became “officers,” like doctors;
- Did you know that Nightingale worked to upgrade the terrible workhouse infirmaries into real hospitals? That she held that the same high quality of care available to the rich should be also for the poor? Is this not a message still needed today?
- Did you know that Nightingale worked with other professionals– doctors, statisticians, engineers, architects–on health care reforms? A union wanting to encourage its members to think of policy and advocacy would find much that is relevant in her example.
- Did you know that the original Elizabeth Garrett Hospital, where the Unison Centre now lives after much rebuilding, was a women’s hospital on whose design Nightingale worked? That she contributed to the funding for the hospital, and helped raise money for it?
For more on what Nightingale actually said and wrote see: www.uoguelph.ca/~cwfn.
Andrea Spyropoulos, president, Royal College of Nursing
Peter Carter, chief executive
20 Cavendish Sq
London W1G 0RN
November 5, 2012
Dear Ms Spyropoulos and Dr Carter
We are writing with concern over the RCN’s presentation of Mary Seacole as a pioneering nurse. We do not oppose honouring Seacole for her own merits, but rather, alas, the sizable misinformation campaign now associated with her. Nor do we oppose her being honoured with a statue, although we do most strenuously oppose its being erected at St Thomas’ Hospital with the designation ”Pioneer Nurse,” a term clearly applicable to Nightingale, especially at her hospital–the home for more than a century of her nursing school, and a hospital whose design she influenced, in the cause of improved, safer hospital design–surely a matter for ongoing, not merely historical, concern.
We ask for the reasons for the remarks of RCN leaders, published in the Nursing Standard:
1. From, Sylvia Denton, RCN president in 2004, when she led the call for a monument to Seacole and stated: “Against all odds, she had an unshakeable belief in the power of nursing to make a difference. Mrs Seacole changed the face of modern nursing,” in Carol Davis, “Living Her Dream,” 18,32 (21 April 2004):12. What did she change? From what to what? We consider that Nightingale changed the face of modern nursing, and could go on for a very long time explaining how, but Seacole was a “doctress” or herbalist, and to our knowledge never was a nurse.
2. “RCN general secretary Peter Carter said: ‘There are three historical female figures in nursing who deserve respect, Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and Edith Cavell. They are three different women and it saddens me that we cannot celebrate all three in equal measure,” in Petra Kendall-Raynor, “Choice of Nightingale’s ‘Shrine’ for Seacole Memorial Contested” 21,34 (2 May 2007):8. But what is equal about their contributions? Edith Cavell is celebrated for her bravery, not her nursing (which was unhappily cut short). What exactly did Mary Seacole do to establish the nursing profession, in the U.K., or anywhere? If she nursed at a hospital, which? Did she write a book on nursing? What? Mentored nurses? Name some. Sent out teams of nurses to start professional nursing in other cities and countries? Where? We append Did You Know? about Nightingale’s contributions for reference.
3. The RCN website on the Mary Seacole stamp issued by the Royal Mail, that Seacole was taught “traditional African herbal medicine and midwifery by her mother,” when her memoir never mentions African remedies or midwifery but merely calls her mother “an admirable doctress” (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands 2), from whom she learned “a great deal of Creole medicinal art” (5). She is said to have “learned to treat cholera, yellow fever and other tropical diseases in her travels to Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas, the USA and England,” although in her memoir she mentioned Haiti and Cuba only in passing (“I visited also Hayti and Cuba” (5), and was never in the U.S.; in the Bahamas she collected “handsome shells and rare shellwork” for sale back in Jamaica, where they caused “a sensation” (5). When she earlier lived in England for 2 years, she sold West Indian preserves and pickles (4). When she came in 1854 her purpose was to look after her gold stocks (74).
Further, according to the RCN website, she learned about “surgical techniques and European medical practice” while in England; what? Where? (she said not a word to that effect in her memoir).
4. The RCN, jointly with other organizations, administers the Mary Seacole Leadership Awards, funded by the Dept of Health. A website providing application material states that the awards emphasize “Mary Seacole’s pioneering role in leadership.” Please state concretely what that pioneering leadership was.
We ask you to forward this request for information to the other officials (or former officials) of the RCN as necessary for response.
To Prof. Martin Hall, University of Salford
Professor Martin Hall, Vice-chancellor
University of Salford
Salford M5 4WT
December 10, 2012
Some of the information requested about the Mary Seacole Building was duly sent, thanks to Ian Johnston. No information was provided on the information given to those making the decision, or any background document provided. Still, enough was sent for me to be writing you, now with colleagues concerned with the issue, about the extent of misinformation.
I am sorry to tell you that the wording on the plaque in the Seacole Building is seriously wrong, from beginning to end. Numerous erroneous sources are now available, so that it would take considerable care to get the facts about Seacole right, or even close. My colleagues and I do not object to honouring Seacole for her own work, but to crediting her with work (and feats) that she did not do, often crediting her with the work that Florence Nightingale did. (You do not mention Nightingale by name on your plaque, but make a snide reference to the “Angel Band.” Nightingale’s mission, not Seacole’s, was to ordinary soldiers.)
Herewith your plaque, with its errors (see the numbered notes): Mary Seacole, born in Kingston, Jamaica, was an unlikely medical pioneer. She had no private capital, no formal training, and yet when she died in 1881 she was the most famous black woman of the Victorian age. She is acknowledged now as a gifted and influential multidisciplinary practitioner and true nursing hero.
Mary was the daughter of a Scottish soldier father and African Caribbean mother. Her mother was a “doctress” or traditional healer who taught her willing daughter all she knew. Mary travelled widely and in Panama encountered and cared for cholera victims for the first time. Her expertise in herbal remedies and spiritual healing became tempered with a sound clinical approach.
In 1854 Mary rushed to Britain and volunteered to help in the Crimean War. She was nearly 50 years of age and a striking figure—unashamedly large, colourful and cheerful. Her exuberance embarrassed the War Office and they refused to see her. Similarly she was turned down by the much-acclaimed “Angel Band” of more demure military nurses. Undeterred, Mary funded her own journey to the battlefields of the Crimea. There she founded the British Hotel close to the battlefield of Balaclava for sick and wounded soldiers of all rank(s). “Mother Seacole” quickly became an institution among her “sons” in the army, beloved and admired.
When the war ended in 1856, she returned to Britain destitute and in ill health. The press highlighted her plight and funds were raised through a grand military festival. She was decorated for her work by Britain, France and Turkey and became something of a national celebrity. Her autobiography “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands” was first published in 1857 and tells her remarkable life story with energy, warmth and humour. In it she provided an insight into the history of race politics.
All her life she followed an instinct to help comfort and understand and the individual patient was always her prime concern. When she died in London at the age of 76 she had become recognized as the first black woman in history to make her mark on British public life.
In the light of this critique, we ask how you intend to amend the plaque? An academic institution cannot permit such material in a public setting without exposing itself to significant embarrassment. We would be happy to provide material for a more appropriate inscription, if that would be helpful.
[Numbers in brackets refer to pages in Alexis Soyer, Culinary Campaign 1857 (CC) and Mary Seacole’s “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands” (WA)]
To Andrea Spyropoulos and Peter Carter, RCN
Andrea Spyropoulos, president, Royal College of Nursing
Peter Carter, chief executive
20 Cavendish Sq
London W1G 0RN
December 10, 2012
Dear Ms Spyropoulos and Dr Carter
While we look forward to your response on our inquiries in a previous letter, we would urge you to act without delay on the RCN website’s false claims. We mentioned only a few errors in our (already lengthy) letter, and here set out how thoroughly misleading it is. Moreover, we suspect that it has been used as a source by other institutions. We ask you to remove this faulty section of the RCN website, explain why, and provide a fair and accurate substitute.
[Numbers in brackets refer to pages in Mary Seacole’s “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands” (WA)]
Para 1. There are two likely (but less significant) errors, at least there is no evidence for them: that Seacole’s father was an “officer” (she called him a “soldier”, WA p 1) and that he was a “godson of Viscount Nelson.”
Para 2 (a). “She learned to treat cholera, yellow fever and other tropical diseases in her travels to Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas, the USA and England,” although she said nothing of treating anyone in Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas and England, and never was in the USA (WA, p 5).
2 (b) “England, where she also learnt about surgical techniques and European medical practice,” but on her early English travels Seacole said she sold “West Indian preserves and pickles” (WA, p 4).
2 c) in the yellow fever epidemic of 1853 “she was asked to take on responsibility for the nurse care at the large military camp in Kingston,” yes, but her memoir makes clear that she did not (WA, p 63).
2 (d) “It was here that she heard from British soldiers about the dreadful conditions faced by the wounded on the Crimean Peninsula,” but the first battle was not fought until 20 September 1854, more than a year later.
2 (e) “In 1854…she borrowed money specifically” to pay her own passage to the scene of the Crimean War, but her memoir says that she had funds enough to make the trip—and note that she was in London to deal with her gold-mining stocks (WA, p 74).
Para 3 (a) “Seacole set up the British Hotel at Balaclava, close to the front. This was a convalescent home for officers,” but her memoir rather stated an intention of establishing The British Hotel to “provide comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers” (WA, p 81), which in fact she did not do. Her hut at Kadikoi was a restaurant, bar, store and takeaway for officers, with a “canteen for the soldiery” (WA, p 114).
3 (b) She ran “a free casualty ward at the hotel to provide medical treatment for the rank and file soldiers,” not a claim she ever made. In any event, she missed most of the casualties, for the three largest battles took place months before her arrival. She did describe treating wounds, but these were of officers at sporting events, in their ample holiday after hostilities were over, e.g., “I have several patients in consequences of accidents at the races” (WA, p 182).
Para 4 (a) “Seacole…had to battle with ethnic prejudices particularly in her use of traditional Jamaican medicine,” not a concern she ever raised; the ethnic prejudice she described encountering in Panama was on the part of Americans (WA, pp 47-48 and 57-58), and had nothing to do with her work as a “doctress.”
4 (b) “She was also frowned upon for carrying out treatment normally restricted to doctors,” true, but she herself acknowledged that she made “lamentable blunders” and was made to “shudder” when she saw what she had put into some of her remedies (WA, p 31). She was pleased with her use of lead acetate, “sugar of lead,” but this is a toxic substance, at best ineffective as a treatment for cholera. She also used mercury chloride.
4 c) Your commend her “for not limiting herself—as did other women—to simply caring for the ill,” presumably a crack at Nightingale and her insistence that nurses follow medical orders. However, given Seacole’s proclivity for “blunders,” and her adoption of harmful medical practices, this is a dubious advance for nursing. Does the RCN want nurses today to add toxic substances to remedies, in the name of showing their independence of doctors?
Para 5 (a) “Mary Seacole was awarded the Crimean Medal and the French Legion of Honour Medal,” but she was awarded neither, nor ever claimed to have been. The Crimean Medal was a military medal, given only to officers and men of the army and navy. The Legion of Honour was also, in effect, a military medal, as nominations for it went to the French government from the military.
Finally, your picture of Seacole, from a Jamaican stamp, shows her wearing medals; it should state that they were not awarded to her.
To Sandy Nairn, National Portrait Gallery
Sandy Nairn, CBE, director
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place
London WC2H 0HE
December 10 2012
Dear Mr Nairn
We are writing with concerns about the considerable amount of misinformation that the NPG has put out about Mary Seacole, and (lesser amounts) about Florence Nightingale, misinformation largely pursuant to the political correctness line the NPG has been taking on Seacole. The use of the Challen portrait for a 150th year commemorative stamp, with the egregious misinformation circulated with it, is a major instance(1). 1856 was not only the year the NPG was founded, but the it marks the end of the Crimean War, the war that resulted in the founding of the Nightingale School, and which prompted her own pioneering research (that led to her becoming the first woman fellow of the Royal Statistical Society) and to many reforms in public health.
We note that your own website entry on the Challen portrait of Seacole was corrected, but numerous other errors remain, notably in “Mary Seacole in Focus,”(2) described as “Information and Activities for Teachers of Key Stage 1 to 4.” Misinformation about Seacole(3) is rife in the U.K. National Curriculum, and the errors and exaggerations in yours add to a sorry story.
Visuals of Seacole throughout that website show her wearing medals, without any indication that they were never awarded to her. Any portrayal of her with medals should make that clear.
This is no academic point, for, we suspect, the NPG “stamp of approval” of Seacole has influenced other national institutions. We asked the director of the Royal Mail if it had ever printed a stamp before with a person on it wearing medals not their own. The answer was that they were merely accepting what you sent them. Presumably they assumed you had done “due diligence” on Seacole. However, unfortunately, there is now so much misinformation available about her that it would require considerable effort to get the story right.
[Numbers in brackets refer to pages in Mary Seacole’s “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands” (WA)]
(1) The Seacole 150th Anniversary Stamp, quoting your release 18 July 2006
“Women pioneers Mary Seacole, Emmeline Pankhurst and Dame Cicely Saunders lead list of Great Britons….also Shakespeare, Darwin, Churchill.” True, it is commonly said that Seacole was a “pioneer,” but what did she pioneer? We are unaware of any contribution made to nursing or hospitals by her. In 1866 she donated “100 bottles of anti-cholera medicine and 100 boxes of pills” to the “Mansion House Cholera Relief Fund” (Times 31 August 1866 6A). That is the only contribution to health care in Britain she made, but since the ingredients of those remedies are not known, and she used lead acetate as a cholera remedy, it is possible that these remedies were not merely ineffective, but harmful.
It is difficult to see the parallel between Seacole and the other Great Britons. She published her fine travel memoir, “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands”, but does this put her in the same league as Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf or Churchill? She was not a founder of a healthcare service as Cicely Saunders was (Nightingale was). She ran a restaurant, bar, takeaway, etc., during the Crimean War. On three occasions, according to her memoir, she did first aid work after battle, on the battlefield (WA, pp 155, 164, 169), But how is this comparable to Churchill in World War II? How might she compare with Mrs Pankhurst, when she had nothing to do with the suffrage movement? (Nightingale actively supported it.) Could you explain? Darwin’s contribution to science profoundly changed it, as did Nightingale’s contribution to healthcare.
Your statement (paragraph 3) refers to “outstanding work in the Crimea,” but that it was ”overshadowed” by that of Nightingale. Again, what was this “outstanding” work? While Seacole was waiting for her huts to be put up she gave tea and lemonade to soldiers on the wharf waiting transport to the general hospitals. These were acts of kindness, but “pioneering” and “outstanding” would seem to be gross exaggerations. Contemporaries, such as the war correspondent W.H. Russell, and many officers and doctors who left memoirs, recognized her as kind and generous, but your statement goes far beyond that.
Your paragraph 4 states that “unlike Nightingale, Mary Seacole did not come from a middle-class background or have any formal training.” In fact Nightingale had no formal training—she managed to get experience in several hospitals, but there was no formal training program until her school opened in 1860. You are simply dead wrong about the class attribution of Seacole. Her family, as mixed-race Jamaicans (she was “yellow” or “brunette,” never, according to her own self-description, “black”) were not part of the upper, white class. But they were middle-class property owners. Seacole’s mother ran a substantial boarding house, which she (apparently) inherited. The site now houses the National Library of Jamaica. Seacole herself ran her own businesses, with black employees. She travelled with two black servants. Her trip to London in the autumn of 1854 (when she decided she wanted to go to the Crimean War) was prompted by a problem with her gold mining stocks (WA, p 74).
On all this the damage has been done, but we believe it is important to correct the record.
(2) “Mary Seacole in Focus”
Introduction. The terms “heroine” and “nurse” are used, while Seacole never claimed heroism and called herself a “doctress,” and did not nurse.
Biography: Mary Seacole (1805-1881)
Paragraph 1: she was “proud of her West Indian heritage,” but her memoir shows pride only in her Scotch roots, with disparaging remarks about the Creole (WA, pp 1-2); she never used the term “African” or”black” for herself or her family.
Paragraph 2: “set up her own boarding house for her patients,” but she never said that; her memoir is vague, but it seems that she inherited her mother’s house on her death; it largely catered to army and navy officers and their wives, whom she looked after when sick, but it was hardly confined to the sick. That she “saved many lives” on the prospecting route in Panama is entirely without evidence.
Paragraph 3: “having moved on to nurse cholera patients in Cuba.” while her memoir only says that she visited Cuba (WA, p 5).
She was “so well respected” that she was, you add “she says” in charge “of the nursing services for the British military headquarters in Jamaica.” However, her memoir says only that she was asked to take charge, and makes it clear that she did not (WA, p 59). The British Army did not then have nursing services to be in charge of.
Paragraph 4: “She offered herself directly to Florence Nightingale at Scutari,” but her memoir states that she asked Nightingale for a bed for the night, as she had already booked passage for herself and her supplies, to meet her business partner in Balaclava (WA, pp 90-92). “She went to the battlefields and set up in business as a sutler,” but this was the plan she and her business partner had formed in London (WA, p 81); “She used the money she earned from British officers to finance her medical work with the ordinary soldiers,” but she said nothing of the sort, merely that she helped some people whether they could pay or not. “She seemed to be impervious to danger and even went on to the battlefield,” yes, as did others, after the battle; she went with mule loads of supplies and an employee.
Extract 4, under picture of Florence Nightingale: “Mary Seacole often found herself under fire,” although in her memoir she mentioned three instances of battlefield visits, post-battle.
Extract 6, on Alexis Soyer: he was a friend of both Nightingale and Seacole, and worked nearly every day with Nightingale on improving nutrition for the army; he devoted many pages of his memoir to describing this, but there is not the slightest mention of work with Seacole.
Another major problem on this website is the “Timeline,” which as well as conveying misinformation about Seacole as a nurse, minimizes that of Nightingale, who in fact pioneered professional, secular nursing, indeed for the world.
(3) Misinformation about Seacole:
1817: “begins nursing with her mother,” but she said she learned “doctress” skills from her (WA, p 2).
1851-53 “In Panama nursing cholera patients and running British Hotel,” an exaggeration (WA, Chapter 4).
1853: “In Jamaica nursing yellow fever patients,” but she admitted total defeat (WA, pp 59-63).
1854-5 “In London trying to sign up to nurse in Crimea but rejected,” but her purpose in going to London was business:
“I had claims on a Mining Company which are still unsatisfied; I had to look after my share in the Palmilla Mine speculation” (WA, p 71). Nor, when she did decide she wanted to go, did she submit an application (they are at the National Archives, Kew), nor that the first lot of nurses had already left while she was still pursuing her gold stocks (WA, p 74).
1855 Seacole was “the first woman to enter Sebastopol when it falls,” the first British woman, likely, but the French vivandières were there promptly; in any event, so what? the Russians abandoned the city, so that there was no danger entering; she went with mule loads of food and drink, her business partner and friends (WA, pp 182-4). You do not mention that she pocketed souvenirs from the abandoned buildings, and from the bodies of dead Russians.
1856: “Florence Nightingale meets Queen Victoria at Balmoral,” yes, but you do not say why, that Nightingale was seeking to reform soldiers’ health and hospital care to reduce the terrible death rates that occurred in the Crimean War.
1860: “Florence Nightingale writes Notes on Nursing…and founds Nightingale School,” yes, but you omit mention of her ground breaking studies of what went wrong in the war, her pioneering statistical analysis, her influential Notes on Hospitals, etc.
1861: “Florence Nightingale begins three decades of establishing nursing in Britain and advising British and foreign armies on reforming medical services,” a rather minimal summary of her four decades plus of work, which began in 1858, which included the reform of the workhouse infirmaries and the introduction of professional nursing in many countries.
1907: “Florence Nightingale awarded Order of Merit,” true, but you fail to mention most of the work she did to deserve it. On what Nightingale actually did and wrote see: www.uoguelph.ca/~cwfn
For further examples of misinformation about Seacole see: http://www.maryseacole.info/
Altogether, we think it is time to be honest about Seacole—we do not oppose honouring her, but rather crediting her with work that she never did, and which, often Nightingale did. It is time also to re-discover Nightingale. You missed out on Nightingale in 2006. Her work, its principles and vision, are still relevant in the world of health and hospital care today. We note that the 200th anniversary of her birth will take place in 2020, and we hope that the NPG will do her proud. If you are considering such a project, we would be happy to advise and assist.
To HRH the Duchess of Cornwall
HRH the Duchess of Cornwall
London SW1 1BA
December 10, 2012
We have written to HM the Queen, the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cambridge and HRH Princess Alexandra concerning the projected placement of a statue to honour Mary Seacole as the “Pioneer Nurse” at St Thomas’ Hospital: the Queen particularly as she has already opened the Mary Seacole Building at Brunel University; Princess Alexandra as it has been suggested that the Palace would ask her to unveil the statue planned for St Thomas’ Hospital. We believe that you should be informed as well, in case you are asked to open a building or unveil a statue.
We wish to make clear that we do not oppose honouring Seacole for her own work, but rather her being credited with the achievements of Florence Nightingale, and more widely, entirely fictional achievements, such as being awarded three medals for bravery during the Crimean War.
Nightingale was demonstrably not only Britain’s “pioneer nurse” but the major founder of nursing throughout the world. Even the design of St Thomas’ Hospital was influenced by her, and can be seen in the three pavilions that survived bombing in the Second World War. The 1871 hospital originally built on the site was opened by Queen Victoria. It was of the then innovative, safe “pavilion” design, and architects came from America and Europe to see it.
The fact that St Thomas’ faces Parliament only adds to the offence, for Seacole had nothing to do with political change for health care, while Nightingale throughout her life wrote briefs for Parliament and lobbied Cabinet members and MPs on needed reforms.
On the misinformation now in circulation about Seacole see http://www.maryseacole.info. On Nightingale see: http://www.uoguelph.ca/~cwfn.
We understand the desire of many people to celebrate a black heroine. However, we do not believe that the work and reputation of another person should be denigrated in the process, or that false “information” should be used to justify the claims made for the honouree.
A reply by your staff would be appreciated: to firstname.lastname@example.org
To Sir Robert McAlpine
Sir Robert McAlpine
Hemel Hempstead, Herts HP2 7TR
January 20, 2013
Dear Sir Robert
We understand that you have agreed to construct the planned statue of Mary Seacole for St Thomas’ Hospital at cost, thereby saving the promoters of the statue a considerable sum. Generous as this is of you, we wonder what you have against Florence Nightingale.
We wish to make clear that we do not oppose the erection of a Seacole statue, but rather to the dishonest portrayal of her. The planned statue is to show her wearing medals, which in fact she never won. True, she wore medals, and had her portrait painted, photographs taken and a bust sculpted wearing them–but none of them were hers.
The statue is to name her “Pioneer Nurse,” at Nightingale’s hospital no less, the site of her school, the first secular nurse training school in the world, and for more than a century the base from which she sent out teams of nurses to bring in new standards of patient care throughout the world. Yet Seacole was not a nurse at all, and never claimed to be. She called herself a “doctress,” meaning herbalist (although she was known to add such toxic substances as lead acetate and mercury chloride to her remedies, which of course were not harmless herbals).
You as a leading figure in the construction industry might be interested to know that Nightingale was a major force in reforming hospital architecture in the late 19th century–when death rates of patients per admissions averaged 10%. She influenced the design of the St Thomas’ opened in 1871, which was a world leader in design. Three of the old pavilions still stand (the others were bombed in World War II). What a curious place to install a statue honouring another person as the “Pioneer Nurse”!
We urge you to make your donation of costs contingent on the statue being honest: no medals and no claim of “Pioneer Nurse,” and placement somewhere other than St Thomas’ Hospital.
To Sharon Ament, Director, Museum of London
Sharon Ament, director
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London EC2Y 5HN
Dear Ms Ament
We are writing with concern about your website and tour material on Mary Seacole, about whom an enormous amount of misinformation is in circulation. Especially since the Museum of London takes tours of school children, we urge that the errors be corrected.
Minor errors, or uncorroborated points, on your coverage of Seacole include the point that her mother was a “free black woman,” although Seacole never used the term “black” for herself or her family members–they were of mixed race; she called herself “Creole” (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands 1). She described her father as a “soldier” (1) not an officer. She gave her mother’s occupation as “boarding house” keeper, who was also an “admirable doctress (2), never a nurse. There is no documentation that Seacole was employed by the royal family post-Crimea.
On the Crimean War the errors escalate. When war broke out in the Crimea–the first battle was on 20 September–Nightingale’s team of nurses did not exist, and Seacole was en route to England from Panama, to attend to her gold-mining stocks (74). Seacole never submitted an application to be a nurse (they are at the Public Archives, Kew). According to her memoir, she went around to various offices to apply in person–after Nightingale and her team had left (75-79). She may have been rejected for racism, but it is impossible to tell–she was also old for nursing, and lacked hospital experience.
Seacole then decided, with her business partner, to establish a hotel, and sent out printed cards to this effect (81). On consultation with chef Alexis Soyer, however, she decided to keep the business to food and drink, not hotel accommodation (see his Culinary Campaign 233). She never claimed to have run a “daily clinic,” but rather saw “patients,” all walk-ins, while running her kitchen (125). The food was for sale to officers, not ordinary soldiers, who clearly could not afford the lobster, fine wines, champagne, etc. Nor did soldiers buy boots or saddles, but officers did. The “cannon fire” statement is an exaggeration, and her helping “on the battlefield” occurred on exactly three occasions (156, 167, 169). Seacole sold herbal remedies, and gave some away to those who could not pay. However, she also added toxic non-herbals to her cholera remedies, such as lead acetate and mercury chloride (31). Her remedies for bowel diseases were unhappily similar to those used by doctors, and, like theirs, either ineffective or positively harmful.
Seacole was given no medals by any country, nor ever, in her Wonderful Adventures, claimed to have been awarded any. She did not wear medals for her picture on the cover. However, she started to wear them in London after the war, which was not then illegal. Since 1955, it has been a criminal offence in the Army Act to wear military medals not your own. This is a common myth bandied about, but is entirely false. (Only the military were awarded those medals–see John Horsley Mayo, Medals and Decorations of the British Army and Navy, vol. 2 on the Crimean War). The one medal Seacole was awarded, although posthumously, was the Jamaican Order of Merit, but you do not mention it!
Seacole and her partner had to declare bankruptcy (they had expanded the business, expecting the British Army to stay longer in the Crimea after hostilities were over than it did). Officers did the fund raising for her after the war, for officers were her main customers.
We note also that your website has almost nothing about Nightingale–a “carte de visite.” Yet her decades-long work, all based in London, brought in modern professional nursing, health care reforms and changed hospital design.
To Michael Gentles and Lance Hylton, Postal Corporation of Jamaica
Mr Michael Gentles, Postmaster General/CEO
Mr Lance Hylton, chairman
Postal Corporation of Jamaica
Central Sorting Office
6-10 South Camp Road
Dear Mr Hylton and Mr Gentles
We are writing you with concerns about the stamps commemorating Mary Seacole. We do not at all oppose her being honoured with the issuing of commemorative stamps, but the inaccurate information on several of them. She should be celebrated for her own merits, but for some years now flagrantly false information has circulated about her. Several of the false statements are clearly contradicted by what she said herself in her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, a commendable book still worth reading!
1991 two stamps. One is thoroughly wrong, depicting Seacole in a nurse’s uniform at the bedside of a soldier at the Scutari Barrack Hospital, the main hospital nursed by Nightingale and her team. Mrs Seacole in her memoir described visiting there one day, and having a brief (about 5 minutes) interview with Nightingale, when she asked her for a bed for the night, as she was leaving the following morning for Balaclava. (Her business partner was waiting for her there and their supplies were en route.) Nightingale found a bed for her and had breakfast sent to her. Seacole’s memoir records the encounter (pp 89-91), which clearly shows that she never nursed at that hospital (it is not a mistake in hospital name, but Seacole did no hospital nursing at all, nor ever wore a hospital uniform).
The reference work which reproduces the 1991 stamp, “Mary Seacole Nursing in Hospital in Scutari,” explicitly states that Seacole “did not participate in the care of any of the wounded soldiers in Scutari, as portrayed on the Jamaican stamp issued in 1991” (Susanne Stevenhoved, “Mary Grant Seacole,” Six Hundred Women and One Man: Nurses on Stamps 33).
It was Nightingale’s mission to provide care for ordinary soldiers; Seacole was a businesswoman running a restaurant, bar, takeaway and store for officers, with a “canteen for the soldiery” (Wonderful Adventures 114), function not specified, on the side. Mrs Seacole is known for her kindness to soldiers, which is praiseworthy, but should not be confused with providing nursing care, which she did not, nor ever said she did.
2005 four stamps. The $70 stamp has a portrait of Seacole by Challen, wearing 3 medals, with pictures of 4 medals beside it: the French Legion of Honour, the British Crimea Medal, the Turkish Order of the Medjidie, and the Jamaican Order of Merit, this last the only medal she was actually awarded (posthumously). The other 3 are myths. Seacole herself never claimed in her memoir to have won any medals, and the picture of her on the cover shows her without medals. She began to wear medals post-Crimea, for the first time at her bankruptcy court appearance in November 1856, presumably to attract sympathy. It was not then illegal in the U.K. to wear other persons’ military medals, although it has been since 1955. Seacole also had her portrait painted, photographs taken and her bust sculpted wearing medals, again not illegal. However to reproduce those depictions now without explanation is highly misleading.
The simple facts are that Seacole was not eligible for any of the 3 medals she is usually shown with, for she was not in the military. The Crimea medal was a service medal, for officers and soldiers only, present at particular battles (see John Horsley Mayo, Medals and Decorations of the British Army and Navy vol. 2 Crimea). The British Army sent in nominations for the Turkish and French medals, which were awarded by senior officers on behalf of those governments. They were then, in effect, military medals.
The $30 stamp, “Herbal remedies and medicines,” is innocently misleading. Seacole, as well as using herbal remedies, also added toxic substances such as mercury and lead, which she considered effective but which are now known to be harmful.
We would appreciate hearing from you why these erroneous portrayals were decided on. The stamps are history now, and cannot be undone, but we would ask you to modify your website to give an accurate account.
The Jamaican Order of Merit is inscribed, as can be seen on your $70 stamp, “He that does truth comes into the light.” We hope that you will agree with us that Jamaica owes Seacole both truth and light.
To Winsome Hudson, executive director, National Library of Jamaica
Mrs Winsome Hudson, executive director
National Library of Jamaica
12 East Street
P.O. Box 823
Dear Mrs Hudson
We are writing with concern about numerous erroneous statements in the entry “Mary Seacole (1805-1881)” in your online Biographies of Jamaican Personalities. You, as a librarian yourself, we trust, will understand our dismay about the circulation of misinformation. It is the more remarkable as the National Library is located on the site of the Seacole family home and business, Blundell Hall. Herewith some examples:
1. “In 1853, when yellow fever raged all over Jamaica, Mrs Seacole’s skills were again brought to the fore. From Panama she went to Cuba. Her arrival coincided with the cholera epidemic in that country. Here she proved herself capable in dealing with the situation and became known as the ‘yellow woman from Jamaica with the cholera medicine’.”
But Seacole’s own memoir mentions a visit to Cuba only in passing, no cholera epidemic (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands 5); the quotation is from her stay in Panama (27).
2. “Later in 1853, when England, France and Turkey declared war on Russia and bitter fighting took place in the Crimean Peninsula, Mary felt driven to offer her services as a nurse.”
Turkey declared war in September 1853, but France and Britain not until March 1854, and the first battle did not take place until 20 September 1854. Seacole, according to her own memoir, did not decide to go to the war until she was in London, where she went to look after her gold mining stocks (74). She did not make any effort to go to the Crimea until after Nightingale and her nurses had already left, and only then, according to her memoir, did she begin to call at offices asking to be added to the nursing team (74-79). However, she never submitted the required application (they can be seen at the National Archives, Kew).
3. Seacole, “despite a letter of introduction to Florence Nightingale…was not recruited to join the group of nurses going to the Crimea.”
However, in her memoir, she stated that when she went around applying she had a letter from “A.G.M. Late Medical Officer, West Granada, Gold Mining Company (77), without other specifics, and no mention of one to Nightingale. While in Malta she obtained a letter to Nightingale from a doctor she knew in Jamaica then on his way back from Scutari (85), but by then she was on her way to join her business partner. Her interview with Nightingale was entirely cordial. She asked for a bed for the night, as she was departing the next morning, and was given one, although the hospital was terribly crowded. She reported Nightingale as saying: “What do you want, Mrs Seacole–anything that we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy” (91). All Seacole’s references to Nightingale show good will, on both sides.
4. Seacole set out “to build her own ‘hotel for invalids’ in the Crimea,” a quotation from her stated intention on printed cards she sent out to officers (in her memoir 80-81), but she did not pursue the “hotel” or “invalids” plan.
“Mrs Seacole’s hut,” as it was called in the Crimea, was a restaurant, bar, takeaway and store, never a hotel. It closed at 8 p.m. and on Sundays (145). The store sold remedies, to people whom Seacole called “patients” (125), but they were all walk-ins.
5. “Good, well-cooked food could always be had for soldiers of all ranks.”
Officers and ordinary soldiers did not mix socially. “Mrs Seacole’s” was for officers, and entirely beyond the price range of ordinary soldiers, who had access to a “canteen” (114), for exactly what she did not specify. Her memoir devotes three chapters to food and drink served to officers and provided for their dinner parties and excursions (see her chapters 12, 14 and 18).
5. “Mrs Seacole would set out carrying….arriving on the battlefield at dawn. She was sometimes under fire attending the wounded and taking food to the famished….She risked her life in faithful devotion to the soldiers she loved so loyally.”
However, her memoir records precisely three occasions on which she ventured onto the battlefield, all of them after the battle. She left early on two she described to provide food to the spectators on Cathcart’s Hill (155-57 and 169-71). She used the expression “under fire” in quotation marks, and the context shows she was not in serious danger–anybody in the area was at some risk.
7. Seacole “was presented with the Crimean medal, which she always wore afterwards on her dress.”
She is not known to have “always” worn the medal–she certainly did not in the Crimea–nor did she ever claim to have won it. She did have her picture taken and portrait painted wearing medals, which she either purchased or received as gifts–it was not then illegal to wear someone else’s decorations, but doing so in the U.K. became a criminal offence in 1955.
There are also less important inaccuracies, such as that her husband was a “godson” of Lord Nelson. Researchers who tried to verify this claim simply were unable to (Jane Robinson, Mary Seacole 29-33). “Spring Hill” was a location, not the name of her “hotel,” and, in any event, she built no hotel.
Mary Seacole should be celebrated for her own contributions, which should not be confused with those of Florence Nightingale. Oddly, the entry makes no mention of her fine travel memoir, Wonderful Adventures. It should, and give Seacole full credit for an important literary contribution. Seacole was a businesswoman primarily, a “doctress” on the side. She was known to be kind and generous, to ordinary soldiers as well as to officers. She gave away remedies to people who could not pay, and occasionally provided tea and cake to soldiers, kindnesses greatly appreciated. These are all worthy qualities, if not the stuff of medals and heroics. Surely you owe it to her memory to present her biography accurately.
Oddly your entry omits mention of the honour that your own government gave to Seacole, the Order of Merit (posthumous). It is inscribed “He that does truth comes into the light.” We call for no less than truth and light about Seacole!
To Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health
Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt, PC, MP
Secretary of State for Health
Richmond House, 79 Whitehall
London SW1A 2NS
January 20, 2013
Dear Mr Hunt
Brian Mawhinney, a predecessor in your office, launching the Mary Seacole awards in 1994, contributed significantly to the misinformation about Seacole in circulation. Presumably he did not write his own speech, and we accordingly wish to warn you of the bank of misinformation existing about Seacole in your own office.
In his speech the then secretary for health erroneously stated that Seacole had “considerable nursing skills and made a major contribution to nursing the wounded in the Crimean War,” and that she “later worked as a nurse in and around London.” She was “in fact,” he claimed, “an outstanding black British nurse.”
However Seacole did none of these things. She did not nurse the wounded in the Crimean War, and she did not nurse in London, at any time. She was a boarding house keeper in Jamaica, who later ran a restaurant/store in Panama and then in the Crimea. She was known to be kind to soldiers in providing herbal remedies to them–all walk-ins, not the wounded. She missed the three largest battles of the war, but did provide assistance on three days in 1855: 18 June, 23 August and 8 September–in each case a few hours, post-battle. She also gave out hot tea and lemonade to soldiers waiting transport to the Scutari hospitals. No doubt Mrs Seacole acted kindly on these occasions, but her work would hardly count as a “major” contribution.
She spent her last years in Britain, but was never a “British nurse,” for she never nursed in Britain. She is commonly called “black” now, but it should be realized that Seacole was three quarters white, proud of her Scots heritage, but not of her African heritage–the words “black” and “African” never appear in her memoir in connection with her. She was married to a white man, had a white business partner, and all her customers were white. Like white Jamaicans, she hired blacks–indeed she had two black servants with her both in Panama and the Crimea. To call her “black” then is somewhat incongruous, especially when it is realized that her own views of “good-for-nothing” blacks and “niggers” were far from enlightened, if understandable for the time. To name her now as a “black British nurse” is to misrepresent her.
The secretary for health was correct in describing Seacole as a “contemporary” of Nightingale’s, but so were millions of people–the two met probably for about five minutes, but at no time worked together, for the obvious reason that Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War was to provide nursing and better nutrition for ordinary soldiers, while Seacole was running a restaurant, bar, takeaway and catering service for officers. That they were both in London 1856-59 and 1865-81 signifies nothing, for Nightingale was then highly occupied in starting training for nurses and sending out nurses to other hospitals, while Seacole was then effectively retired (apart from briefly, in 1856, trying to run a shop at Aldershot).
We would add that there are a number of other genuine black nurses, and nurses of Asian and other non-white backgrounds who deserve attention for their contribution. This inordinate concentration on Seacole has had the unhappy result of ignoring important contributions to nursing by a number of non-white pioneers. Mrs K.A. Pratt, for example, was an early black nurse in the NHS, and a leading figure in nursing when she went back to Nigeria. She would be a worthy person to commemorate in an award. See www.maryseacole.info/
To Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education
Rt Hon Michael Gove, PC, MP
Secretary of State for Education
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
January 20, 2013
Dear Mr Gove
We commend you for the decision to remove teaching of Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum.
We remind you, however, that a great deal of damage was done by the years of false teaching on Seacole, and suggest that your department take at least minimal measures to address this. At the very least a statement should be issued that the teaching of Seacole winning medals for bravery and pioneering nursing was not based on fact. A brief (correct) outline of her life could be given, with her actual occupations.
As well, teaching on Nightingale was affected, for the two were linked in the curriculum, which required the denigration of Nightingale’s work to make it more like Seacole’s. We gave examples in our letter to you of September 10, 2012.
Nightingale’s contribution to British life and history has been enormously important, not only in the emergence of nursing as a modern, reputable profession, but for hospital safety (using an evidence-based approach to reduce death rates), methodology (the first woman Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society), and she was most notably a major pioneer of public health care. These are serious contributions, omission of which would result in poor coverage of major elements of British public life and society.
The suggestion (in a leaked document) that Nightingale could be dropped as well as Seacole we would see as extremely backward. Nightingale and Seacole were not equals–one white, the other black–each doing roughly the same thing. Seacole was a decent and kind person, who deserves better than to be used in a propaganda campaign, but she was not a heroic, medal-winning, pioneer nurse, and her contribution were neither similar to Nightingale’s nor of remotely comparable weight.
PO Box 1922
To whom it may concern:We are making a number of complaints about your coverage of Mary Seacole on several of your websites. It is too late to complain about your television programmes on Florence Nightingale and Seacole, but the websites are still available and should, therefore, be corrected.This first set of complaints concerns one of your programmes on Horrible Histories, ‘Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole’.
- Not only was the public relations consultant fictional, as your description stated, the whole story was false, insulting to Nightingale and giving achievements and attributes to Seacole which she never had, nor ever claimed in her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857. Seacole could not have done much work for ‘wounded’ soldiers as she missed the first three battles of the Crimean War: the Alma, Balaclava and Inkermann.
- Seacole is portrayed as an old-fashioned nurse; she is young and black, although she was never a nurse, in Jamaica or in the Crimean War, and never wore a nurse’s uniform. Her occupation in Jamaica was a boarding house proprietor, and in the Crimean War she ran a restaurant/bar/store/takeaway for officers. She is portrayed as black, when she was, in fact, three quarters white. Moreover, she was proud of her Scottish heritage, but not of her Creole background (she never said she was an African: See her book, Wonderful Adventures, pp.1-2). Instead, she referred to herself as ‘yellow’, to indicate her fair complexion. Like many other people in the nineteenth century, she made rude remarks about ‘niggers’. Many examples can be found on a website: www.maryseacole.info/
- Contrary to your statement that Seacole and Nightingale ‘argued about the nursing work each of them did for wounded soldiers’, the two of them only met once, for about five minutes, as described by Seacole in her memoir (Wonderful Adventures, p. 91). On this occasion Seacole asked Nightingale for a bed for the night, which Nightingale found for her. Seacole was en route to the Crimea to open her store/business. They did not discuss nursing at all, according to Seacole’s memoir.
- Contrary to your reference to Seacole being “refused entry” into Nightingale’s nursing corps, Nightingale and her nurses had already left London for the East by the time Seacole decided that she wanted to join them. Seacole’s main reason for being in London was to look after her gold mining stocks, as she explained in her memoir (p. 71).
- Seacole did not sell her home to go to the Criema, as your statement suggests, but used the profits from her last business in Panama to fund this trip and start the business in the Crimea.
- Seacole never established a hospital, nor ever claimed to. Her business, described in detail in her memoir, provided food, alcohol, takeaway meals and catering services for officers’ parties and sporting events. She described giving first aid on the battlefield, post-battle, on three occasions.
- Your statement that ‘Both nurses did pioneering work’ is grossly inaccurate, as Seacole was not a nurse, and did no pioneering work in nursing, nor ever claimed to. She called herself, as her mother had before her, a ‘doctress’, meaning she was a herbalist. Nightingale’s pioneering work was much more extensive than you describe. Seacole’s so-called ‘pioneering work’ in ‘cholera and tropical diseases’ is a mis-statement, in that she claimed few successes, admitted blunders, and is known to have used lethal substances, namely, lead acetate and mercury chloride in her ‘cures’. She was no worse than most doctors of the time, but it would be wildly inaccurate to credit her with ‘pioneering’ work.
- In the BBC film clip Seacole claims that Nightingale turned her down four times; she did not do so even once, as explained above. Seacole did not sell her home in Jamaica to fund her trip, but used profits from her Panama business, as she explained in Wonderful Adventures (p. 74). Nightingale never said, and never believed, that nursing was only for ‘British girls’. This is to accuse Nightingale of racism, and is very offensive. The clip shows Nightingale literally pushing Seacole aside; this is a totally fictional and another offensive misrepresentation. In fact, Nightingale’s grandfather, William Smith who was an MP for Norwich, was a leading member of the movement to abolish slavery and the whole family felt strongly about racial injustices.
- The clip that has Seacole a ‘penniless black’ is wrong because she was not black; and, moreover, her subsequent bankruptcy was the result of poor business decisions, namely, overstocking of goods expecting the war to continue for months longer than it did.
- Calling both women by their first names does them both an injustice. They were adults, not children at the time: Nightingale was 34 and Seacole 50 years old. Do you call adult men in comparable places by their first names?
This sorry website should be closed down, and an apology issued for its flagrant misrepresentations of both people, New material should be provided that is factually accurate on both. It behoves your researchers to read Mary Seacole’s book, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which is now available online: www.digital.library.upenn.edu/
women/seacole/adventures/adventures.html. For further examples of misrepresentation see the website www.maryseacole.info.
The next set of complaints comes from BBC History. Historic Figures: Mary Seacole (1805-1881):
Your opening statement is a flagrant misrepresentation by calling Seacole a ‘pioneering nurse and heroine of the Crimean War’. She was not a nurse at all, and never claimed to be. She was not recognised as a heroine at the time, but this claim has only recently been made of her. Your picture shows her with three medals, which, however, she was never awarded.
- Contrary to your statement that Seacole learned her ‘nursing skills’ from her mother, she learned herbal remedies from her, whom she called an ‘admirable doctress’, in her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (p. 2). Her mother did not keep a boarding house for ‘invalid soldiers’, as it was meant for army and naval officers, who were not necessarily sick.
- Seacole never claimed to have ‘complemented her knowledge of traditional medicine with European medical ideas’. On her travels to Britain, she sold Jamaican pickles and preserves; in the Bahamas she acquired shells and shell-work for sale in Jamaica (pp. 3-5), which demonstrated instances of business activity, with no reference to medical knowledge.
- It is not clear how and when Seacole was ‘refused’ by the War Office. According to her own memoir, she did not even decide she wanted to go until late November 1854, after Nightingale and her team had already left. She never submitted an application to the War Office (whose archival material may be seen at the National Archives at Kew).
- Seacole announced with a printed card her intention of opening the ‘British Hotel as a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent Officers’, but, in fact, did not open a hotel at all; instead, she opened a hut which served as a restaurant/bar/store/takeway.
- Your statement that her battlefield visits were ‘sometimes under fire’ is an exaggeration. She missed the first three battles entirely, but was present for three of them in 1855. On these occasions, described in her Wonderful Adventures, her main function was the sale of food and drink to officers and spectators. She also provided first aid on the battlefield. She referred to being ‘under fire’ in quotation marks, in the same way that many other people did who were in that vicinity.
- You provide no historical evidence for your statement that her reputation ‘rivalled’ that of Florence Nightingale. Mrs Seacole was well liked and became a celebrity on her return to London. However it was Nightingale who led the nursing and did the hard quantitative work after the war addressing the causes of the terrible death rates. Nightingale’s reputation was based on her solid accomplishments, which were well recognized at the time, by doctors, medical statisticians, architects and engineers. Her work and ideas remain influential today.
This website should be drastically revised. The picture should state that Seacole did not earn those medals; moreover, in her memoir she never claimed to have won them. She is first known to have worn them back in London in 1856.
Finally, an e-mail written by an 11 year old girl sent to one of us (Dr Lynn McDonald) exemplifies the way in which poorly conceived BBC programmes (i.e., your Horrible Histories on Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole) can misinform the public of all ages (and affect their views into adulthood). This young girl wrote to ask: ‘Is it true Florence turned down Mary Seacole four times because she was black?’ To which the answer was, as you will have read above, ‘of course not’. Nightingale never turned down Seacole and helped her when she requested help.
– Yours sincerely,
Dr M. Eileen Magnello
Chairperson of the History Group of the Royal Statistical Society
Senior Research Fellow
Department of Science and Technology Studies
University College London
London WC1E 6BT
Dr Lynn McDonald
(university professor emerita)
Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Guelph
Guelph ON N1G 2W1
To Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health
Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt, PC, MP
Secretary of State for Health
Richmond House, 79 Whitehall
London SW1A 2NS
May 16, 2013Dear Mr Hunt
It is bad enough that the Royal College of Nursing and Unison are promoting the replacement of Florence Nightingale with Mary Seacole as the “real founder” of nursing, but the announcement of your department’s new programme, “Heroes of Healthcare” is yet worse: Mary Seacole for nursing, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, women in medicine; Edward Jenner, medicine and Nye Bevan, the healthcare system. This is not to protest celebrating “heroes of healthcare,” far from it, and we note with approval the gender balance, two men and two women.
Possibly the inclusion of Mary Seacole was intended to give racial balance, as she is typically portrayed as a “black Briton,” although she was three quarters white, had a white husband, business partner and white customers, and was proud of her Scottish heritage but not her “Creole” (“blacks” in her writing refer to others, not herself). A better choice for race balance might be the U.K. trained Nigerian Mrs K.A. Pratt, who truly was a nurse, although her contributions were to nursing proper more than health care as a system.
Mrs Seacole was an honourable and generous businesswoman, as a restaurant/bar/caterer and boarding house proprietress, not a nurse. She called herself “doctress” for her use of traditional herbals. She also used lethal metals in her “remedies,” a point omitted by her promoters. She left a fine memoir and her life does deserve celebration. However as she made no contribution to healthcare in Britain or anywhere, it is grossly misleading to name her a “healthcare hero.” There are numerous errors of fact in your department’s announcement.
The missing person in your awards package is Florence Nightingale, who was the major founder of nursing and a visionary of public health care. She articulated the principle, in 1864, of quality health care for all, including the poorest (as opposed to mere charity wards). The National Health Service in 1948 is unthinkable without her decades of work of reforming the terrible workhouse infirmaries, making them into real hospitals, with training, when bedsharing, and no trained nurses, were the norm.
A timeline comparing the contributions of Nightingale and Seacole is appended for your information, and for your officials. Do please tell use what is missing for Seacole, what contributions your department was thinking of when preparing this announcement. Nightingale’s achievements are only summary in our timeline–she did decades of good work both to establish nursing and improve health care and hospitals generally.
To Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition
Rt Hon Ed Miliband, MP
Leader of the Opposition
June 7, 2013
Dear Mr Miliband
We send you a copy of a letter we sent to the Secretary of State for Health on the nomination of Mary Seacole as one of four “health care pioneers” to be honoured in new leadership awards, with concern that Florence Nightingale, who clearly was a health care pioneer, was omitted.
You, as Labour leader, should be particularly mystified, for it was Nightingale who, in 1864, articulated the vision of quality care for all, including those unable to pay for it, and worked assiduously to raise the standard of care in the worst hospitals, the dreaded workhouse infirmaries, where the poorest were forced to go. She fits in well with Aneurin Bevan, who realized this vision with the launching of the National Health Service in 1948. Mary Seacole, a perfectly decent and generous businesswoman, did nothing on health care! (Do tell us if we are wrong on this.)
The according of Nightingale’s work to Seacole is a mistake made by both Labour and Conservative MPs, and, we suspect, by officials in the Department of Health. We append a Timeline comparing the work of the two women, wondering how anyone could mistake who was the health care pioneer.
We would appreciate your circulating this material to MPs in your caucus.
Copy: letter to Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt, PC, MP, Secretary of State for Health, May 20, 2013
To Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party
Rt Hon Nick Clegg, MP
Deputy Prime Minister
London SW1A 2AS
June 7, 2013
Dear Mr Clegg
We send you a copy of a letter we sent to the Secretary of State for Health on the nomination of Mary Seacole as one of four “health care pioneers,” to be honoured in new leadership awards, with concern that Florence Nightingale, who clearly was a health care pioneer, was omitted.
You as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party should be concerned that a lifelong Liberal, which Nightingale was, should have been so badly forgotten.
We do not at all oppose honouring Seacole, for her own work (there are already two awards named after her), but for mistaking Nightingale’s work and vision for hers. We append a Timeline which compares the contributions of the two.
We would appreciate your circulating this material to your Parliamentary colleagues.
To all Westminster MPs
July 17, 2013
We are writing with concern about the decision of the Department for Education to remove Florence Nightingale from the National Curriculum, but to continue recognition of Mary Seacole. We are concerned as well with the Department of Health’s announcement that Mary Seacole should be honoured as one of four new “Pioneers of Health Care,” excluding Nightingale, who was very much a pioneer of health care, a visionary advocating quality care for all, as well as being the major founder of the modern profession of nursing.
We do not oppose honouring Seacole, but rather the exaggerated claims made for her, often with derogatory statements about Nightingale. Seacole is now given credit for work that Nightingale did.
The Early Day Motion of January 2013 urging the continued inclusion of Seacole in the National Curriculum is wrong from beginning to end. She was a decent, generous person, a businesswoman serving officers. Information on what she actually did, with rebuttals of misinformation, is available on www.maryseacole.info. That website also provides a Timeline, which gives the activities of both Nightingale and Seacole. Seacole’s own memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (and a good read) contradicts many of the points made in your motion.
“That this House is aware of history which records the many heroic and compassionate acts carried out unselfishly by renowned war nursing heroine Mary Seacole for innumerable wounded soldiers injured on the Crimean War’s bloody battlefields.”
- Seacole was unselfish and on three occasions gave first aid on the battlefield, after selling food and drink to spectators and officers. Since she missed the first three, major, battles, the “innumerable wounded” point is excessive.
- Seacole was recognized at the time for her warmth and generosity, not as a war heroine or health care advocate.
Recognition “of her contribution shortly to be revealed by the unveiling of a large bronze statue in her memory to be erected in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital facing the Houses of Parliament.”
- Unfortunately the statue is slated to name her “Pioneer Nurse,” which she was not, nor did she ever claim to be a nurse at all. She called herself a “doctress,” used traditional herbal remedies, but also added toxic substances, notably lead and mercury.
- St Thomas’ Hospital was the home for more than a century of Nightingale’s school of nursing, the first secular training school for nurses in the world, and which for decades influenced nursing throughout the world. Seacole in fact held no grudge against Nightingale. According to her memoir they met once, for about 5 minutes, a cordial meeting when Seacole asked for a bed for the night, which Nightingale found for her. (Seacole was en route to the Crimea to start her business.)
Seacole helped “establish a centre to administer the sick and tended to the wounded on the battlefield throughout much of the time under bombardment.”
- The “centre” was a hut, which served as a restaurant/bar/store/takeaway/catering service for officers. The “bombardment” is fiction; everyone near the front was at risk of an odd stray shell, and joked about being “under fire.”
Seacole was “little rewarded for all of her distinguished service in the field…and had to declare bankruptcy.”
- True, Seacole and her business partner had to declare bankruptcy, the result of a bad business decision. After the fall of Sebastopol, they expanded their stock and did a roaring trade for many months, “my restaurant was always full,” said Seacole. When the peace treaty was signed and the officers left, the stock could not be sold. Seacole herself took a hammer to cases of red wine, rather than let the Russians get them for free.
- Seacole was supported after the bankruptcy by money raised for her, mainly by officers. She was able to retire in ease.
Nightingale’s achievements show her national and international significance. Her superb work in statistics and research methodology make her an especially useful model also for girls. In 1864 she called for quality health care for the poor as well as the better off, a principle later enshrined in the 1948 National Health Service. Aneurin Bevan is (rightly) honoured as one of the four “Pioneers of Health Care.” Nightingale deserves to be there, too. As scandals in hospital care emerge, the need for her principles of compassion in patient care, and insistence on high standards of supervision and monitoring to check results all seem even better and better as ideas. What a time to exclude her!
This is not an either-or argument. People should be honoured for their merits. Nightingale’s are clear. Seacole should be honoured for hers, not Nightingale’s, nor the fictional claims made for her by her over-enthusiastic supporters.
We have written the Secretaries of State for Education and Health, as well as other supporters of the Seacole campaign, but as yet have received no reply as to what Seacole’s nursing and health care achievements actually were. Please tell us!
Jennifer M. Best, PhD, FRCPath, Emeritus Reader in Virology, KSL, former governor, Guy’s and St Thomas Foundation Trust
Nigel Biggar BA (Oxon), MA, PhD, Regius Professor of Moral Theology
Mark Bostridge MA (Oxon), biographer
Paul Hawkins (Rev), MA (Oxon) MA (Cantab)
Amanda Keighley (Rev) senior lecturer, University of Hertfordshire
Eileen Magnello, PhD, research fellow, University College London
Wendy Mathews, BA, Grad Dip Phys (ret), former governor Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust
Lynn McDonald, PhD, LLD (hon), emerita professor, director, Collected Works of Florence Nightingale
Allyson Pollock, FFPH, FRCGP professor, Public Health Research and Policy, Queen Mary College, London
Harold E. Raugh, Jr, Lt Col, PhD, FRHist, FRAS, US Army, ret.
Colin Robins (Major) OBE, MA (Cantab), FRHist, editor emeritus, War Correspondent: Journal of the Crimean War Research Society
Pat Smedley MSc (Nurs), BA Hons, RGN, former chair, Friends of the Florence Nightingale Museum
Joan Thompson, OBE, RRC, BA (hons), SRN
Alex Whitehead (Rev Canon) MA, Mphil, Dip Ed