To Dr Jeremy Farrar, director, Wellcome Trust

Dr Jeremy Farrar, OBE, FRS
director, Wellcome Trust
7 November 2016

Dear Dr Farrar,

Many years ago the Wellcome Trust sponsored research on the work of Florence Nightingale and produced some excellent material, still used by researchers. Sadly, it has done little since of use. Worse, it has now joined the ranks of the detractors, in the cause of promoting Mary Seacole. We do not at all object to celebrating Mrs Seacole’s remarkable life, or her excellent memoir, but do object strenuously to according her qualities and achievements she never had, nor ever claimed to have.

The blog post by Content Officer Julia Nurse, posted October 24 2016 on the Wellcome Library website, is wrong from beginning to end. Comments were invited and several of us posted critical comments, citing better sources. None of them has appeared.

As of midweek last week, it seems that the blog post has been withdrawn, with no information provided as to why, or for how long. We are concerned that it might be republished with only minimal changes — so much of the secondary material is plainly wrong, particularly when compared to Seacole’s own writing in Wonderful Adventures.

Herewith details of what is wrong with your material:

1. “Mary Seacole is hailed for her role in caring for sick and wounded British servicemen during the Crimean War”: but her business in the Crimea was selling food and wine to officers, and catering their dinner parties; her assistance to servicemen was scant in comparison, first aid on the battlefield for a few hours on three days (she missed the first three, major, battles of the war as she was busy in London on her gold investments). She also sold “remedies” over the counter to walk-in “patients,” but since we do not know the ingredients, cannot be sure if this was “care” or harm.

2. She made her way to the Crimea “independently … despite being refused passage by the Government of the time.” Since she never submitted an application to become an army nurse (they are at the U.K. National Archives, Kew), how could she have been accepted? She explains in her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, why she waited for some 2 months, attending to her failing gold investments, while Nightingale and her team prepared to leave and left (pp 73-6). By the time Mrs Seacole decided she wanted to go, too, even the second group was off.

3. She had “no official” appointments to her name”: how could she have one, since she never applied and never worked as a nurse at all?

4. That “the majority” of her book is dedicated to her work in the Crimea,” yes, with a focus on the food and drinks she sold to officers, with short mentions of her first aid efforts.

4. Mrs Seacole’s father was a “Scottish lieutenant in the British Army”: she called him “a soldier of an old Scotch family” (p 1), no mention of his being a lieutenant.

5. According to her memoir, Seacole’s mother was an “admirable doctress” (p 1), but there is no mention of her teaching her daughter “traditional nursing skills.”

6. Mrs Seacole put these supposed “nursing skills” to use by “occasionally assisting at the local British army hospital.” False again; Seacole said nothing of nursing at any British Army hospital anywhere. Name one! Rather that she was asked, once, to get nurses for the local army hospital (p 63), but that she did not.

7. “She looked to the natural environment for simple curative solutions.” But in her memoir she admitted adding lead and mercury to her “remedy” for cholera, and acknowledged making “lamentable blunders” (p 31). Her “remedy” dehydrated bowel patients when the effective treatment is rehydration.

One might have thought that a medical research institution would have critically examined Seacole’s “remedies,” given that the wrong treatment for cholera – dehydration – is not merely ineffective but increases the death rate, an estimated 50 to 70%.

8. As claimed, there are references to Seacole in the London Times and the Illustrated London News, but they are not about nursing.

9. She was “refused safe passage when she volunteered her services,” a repeat error, for, by her own admission, she never properly applied, and her causal efforts were late.

10. Seacole offered “much needed care and sustenance” from her hut. Yes, there was “sustenance” for officers, wine, food, catering, at commercial prices; the “care” claim is an exaggeration as the worst of the siege was over when she arrived and set up shop, in late spring 1855, after the terrible winter from November 1854 to March 1855.

11. Elizabeth Anionwu’s statement is wrong that Mrs Seacole “was a nurse even before we had nurses.” Hardly, she ran a business and was proud of it; her business in Panama financed her trip to the Crimea. Mrs Seacole never once claimed to be a “nurse,” a term she reserved for Nightingale and her nurses. She did call herself “doctress, nurse and ‘mother’” (WA 124) not quite a job title.

12. Mention is made that Seacole rarely used opium, but none of the fact that she used lead and mercury (WA 31), which are toxic in any dose.

Further, the two visuals in the blog are misleading – both show Seacole wearing medals she did not win. (It was not then illegal to wear other people’s medals – it is now).

The “Lynne Macdonald” quoted in the blog is presumably Lynn McDonald – no source given – whose Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, 2014, gives primary sources on these various points. For other errors on Seacole see

We urge that the blog entry be removed and an apology for circulating misinformation substituted.

Sincerely yours
[17 members of the Nightingale Society]