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.