|The Nightingale Society
Report from Lynn McDonald, 5 July 2016
Seacole Statue Unveiling
As everybody likely knows, the unveiling ceremony took place on June 30, 2016, with the spreading of much misinformation. I sent an official complaint about the BBC’s online coverage (thanks to Mark Bostridge for alerting me). It was flagrantly wrong, quoted only the propaganda side, etc. Online complaints are limited to 2000 characters, so the more misinformation and bias they put out, the less we can object to it!
The ITV item credited Seacole with starting a “clinic,” a fiction picked up in other media (thanks to Joan Thompson for sending info on). It was repeated in the Belfast Telegraph (I have tried a letter to the editor there).
BBC Complaint, July 1, 2016
The online BBC News item “Mary Seacole statue unveiled in London” (June 30 2016) contains numerous serious factual errors and dubious claims:
- “Mary Seacole was a Jamaican-born nurse who cared for wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War in the 19th century.”
- She was a businesswoman, with a restaurant/bar/store/catering service; she called herself “doctress, nurse and mother” (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, p 124) or “nurse and doctress,” but reserved the term “nurse” for Nightingale and her nurses; she sold wines and food to officers, not soldiers; she missed the first 3 major battles of the war, busy in London on her gold investments, as she explained in her memoir (p 74); “cared for wounded soldiers” is an exaggeration for her 3 forays onto the battlefield, all post-battle.
- “Mary’s pioneering work saved lives”;
- False; she pioneered nothing (numerous letters to Seacole supporters, the Buy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, the RCN, have never received one instance of pioneer nursing in reply. Worse, Seacole admitted to adding lead and mercury to her “remedies,” and used emetics and purging, which dehydrate the patient (p 31). Lead and mercury are toxic in any quantity, and the effective treatment for bowel diseases is the reverse of dehydration — oral rehydration therapy. Mrs Seacole’s remedies were harmful, but probably no worse than those of many doctors; however, to call this saving lives is an egregious error.
- The praise by W.H. Russell, not then “Sir,” is correct, but the context is lacking — it was written for fundraising purposes. Russell was a customer of Seacole’s and friendly to her; note that he, too, was on the battlefield when she was, he collecting stories – the “under fire” description is excessive.
- “She travelled widely and studied traditional and European medical ideas.”
- Yes to travelling, but there is no evidence she studied “European medical ideas” anywhere – another, frequent, claim by her supporters of today.
- “In 1854 she travelled to England and approached the War Office, asking to be sent as an Army nurse to the Crimea.”
- In her memoir, she gave her purpose in going to England to see to her “visionary gold mining speculation on the river Palmilla which seemed so feasible to us in New Granada, but was considered so wild and unprofitable a speculation in London.” She then “threw over the gold speculation altogether and devoted all my energies to my new scheme” (p 74). She never submitted the required application and letters of reference (those of actual applicants are at the National Archives, Kew), but instead dropped in casually into various offices (pp 77-80); this hardly being “refused”; moreover Nightingale and her nurses had already left.
- Seacole did go, but never “established the British Hotel near Balaclava to provide ‘comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers,’” her stated goal (p 81), but the business never had quarters for overnight stays. She “also nursed the wounded on the battlefield — sometimes under the hail of gunfire,” a repeat of the false claim above. If Seacole was ever “under fire,” so was Russell, and numerous officers’ and soldiers’ wives, and various purveyors and tourists.
- She was called “Mother Seacole,” probably more by officers than soldiers, but her reputation never “rivalled that of Florence Nightingale,” another frequent claim. See Russell’s own coverage of the two women, very brief on Seacole, while much on Nightingale and her work. Newspaper coverage of Seacole is largely devoted to her bankruptcy and fundraising for her — not on nursing, pioneering or reforming hospitals and health care — Nightingale’s work, which continued to get considerable coverage.
- “Dr Ron Ramdin” is quoted for writing “her biography,” but no reference is made to Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, 2014, which gives primary sources in exploding the myths.
- “The fact that she met Florence Nightingale and she did not get the job nursing in the Scutari hospital didn’t faze her. She continued on her way to the front.”
- Wrong again; her memoir describes meeting with Nightingale, perhaps for 5 minutes, when Seacole asked for a bed for the night and got it. She did not ask for a job, for she was en route to the Crimea to join her business partner, with products to sell and others ordered. Seacole quoted Nightingale in her memoir: “What do you want, Mrs Seacole–anything that we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy” (p 91). Seacole then describes asking for the “hospitality” of the hospital (then overcrowded). The BBC story here goes beyond mere exaggerated praise of Seacole to blame Nightingale, for something she never did, nor did Seacole ever say she did.
The BBC online item refers to four people with pro-Seacole positions, not one contesting the statue or its siting. The Nightingale Society and various other people have been publicly objecting now for years.
Finally, short of an official complaint, it is worth noting that radio coverage of a related story, by “Dotton,” (rhymes with Cotton) was biased (June 20, 2016, 1:30 p.m.). An extract of remarks by Lord Soley was given, which included a false statement about Seacole being asked by the Army to take over the nursing at a hospital in Jamaica. The interviewer clearly sided with Soley and was sarcastic to the interviewee, myself, Lynn McDonald. Why don’t BBC stories ever point out the false claims of Seacole supporters?
Congratulations to Laurie Gottlieb, RN, PhD, on being awarded an honorary doctorate by Laval University, Quebec in June. Laurie is Flora Madeline Shaw Chair of Nursing at McGill University, and editor emeritus CJNR. Her work on “strengths-based nursing” draws its inspiration to Nightingale’s approach.
Clearly, the statue campaign could not have succeeded without so many people being convinced of the phoney story. We were late in issuing protests and better information (we date only from 2012, after the decision to welcome the statue at St Thomas’ was made, and the fundraising well in hand). I propose to prepare some more joint letters to go out, to hit at the false information:
- The BBC , a major purveyor of the propaganda (we occasionally get into the story)
- OCR and the Education secretary (he is now running for the conservative leadership), on issuing correct information on Seacole and FN, and de-linking FN and Seacole in teaching.
Proposing a Real Black Pioneer Nurse
Many have been neglected in the stampede for Seacole. My favourite is Mrs Kofoworola Abeni Pratt, the Nigerian Nightingale nurse who got professional nursing established in Nigeria, with Nigerian nurses (after its introduction by a small number of British ex-pats).
It is possible that anti-Nightingale nurses, now that they have their statue, will be less hostile to Nightingale. If we really can encourage some new attention to Nightingale’s work—which was pioneering—we might turn some people around. Nightingale’s environmentalism should give us some good opportunities.