To Simon Stevens, CEO, NHS

Simon Stevens, CEO
National Health Service
PO Box 16738 Reddich B97 9PT
April 5, 2015

Dear Mr Stevens

Re: Bicentenary of the Birth of Florence Nightingale 2020
Mary Seacole Campaign

We are writing to raise two related issues with you and your colleagues: celebration of the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale in 2020, and the complication of the active campaign for Mary Seacole to be recognized as an “equal nurse,” “pioneer nurse” and even “pioneer health service” provider, titles awarded her variously by the Dept of Health, by NHS Employers, the RCN, etc.

We see little prospect of an appropriate celebration while the denigration of Nightingale continues. Nurses did not start it, but no nurse, nursing or health care organization defended Nightingale when she was accused, in a BBC “educational” programme no less, of discriminating against Seacole on the basis of race. We did, and eventually the BBC Trustees ruled that the programme was “materially inaccurate.”

The Department of Health named leadership programmes in public health after Seacole in 2013, although it has never said what she pioneered, and we are aware of nothing that would qualify. Nightingale, of course, pioneered much, as the major founder of the modern profession of nursing and the visionary, in 1864, of the NHS itself, that is, of the provision of quality care to all, including those unable to pay.

The listing of Seacole with Edward Jenner, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Aneurin Bevan, omitting Nightingale, is peculiar to say the least. It was Nightingale who first set out the goal of quality care for all, and did so much to improve care for the neediest. The old workhouse infirmaries were turned into real hospitals, in time with nurse training schools themselves.

A letter we sent to Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, May 20 2013, made these points, and received no answer.

The NHS Employers could give us no answer either, but rather complained that we were too fussy about accuracy in research (NHS letter of 30 July 2013). The RCN CEO and president, likewise, declined to answer our request for particulars.

The Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust had no answer to our queries (of 2012 and 2013) as to what Seacole did as “Britain’s black heroine who gave her life’s work in support of its early development,” a statement it issued as research background for its board (20 July 2011). In fact, Seacole did not give a day of her life to develop nursing in England, or elsewhere: she was a businesswoman, a caterer with an informal practice of over-the-counter herbals on the side.

We note also that the inordinate focus on Seacole has the unhappy result of sidelining genuine black and minority nurses who gave leadership. (See Lynn McDonald, Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, 2014 for bios of several who deserve recognition.)

We would particularly urge you to consider Mrs K.A. Pratt, a Nigerian Nightingale nurse who trained in England on an RCN scholarship. She was likely the first black nurse in the NHS when it opened in 1948. She subsequently became chief nursing officer in Nigeria, where she led in the development of professional nursing, with Nigerian nurses.

We hope that you will celebrate Nightingale’s bicentenary and ask that you turn the matter over to the appropriate people for planning. We ask you to review all Mary Seacole promotional material you use. Mrs Seacole was a spunky person who led a remarkable life that deserves celebration. It is unfortunate that she should be credited with Nightingale’s achievements. She deserves better than to have her life hijacked for a political campaign, even if its purpose, of improving diversity in nursing, is a worthy one. There are better means for doing this.

We would argue, finally, that the challenges of health care today are such as to ensure the ongoing relevance of Nightingale’s principles and standards. Environmental health, safe hospitals and the creative use of good research to improve policy were her specialties.

Yours sincerely