Archive for December, 2012

To Andrea Sypropoulos and Peter Carter, RCN

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.

Yours sincerely

To Sandy Nairn, National Portrait Gallery

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.

Britain 1805-1910

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:

For further examples of misinformation about Seacole see:

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.

Yours sincerely

To Martin Hall, vice-chancellor, University of Salford

To Prof. Martin Hall, University of Salford

Professor Martin Hall, Vice-chancellor
University of Salford
The Crescent
Salford M5 4WT

December 10, 2012

Dear Vice-chancellor

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.1 She had no private capital2, no formal training3, 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 practitioner4 and true nursing hero5.

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 remedies6 and spiritual healing7 became tempered with a sound clinical approach.

In 1854 Mary rushed to Britain8 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 her9. Similarly she was turned down by the much-acclaimed “Angel Band” of more demure military nurses10. Undeterred, Mary funded her own journey to the battlefields of the Crimea11. There she founded the British Hotel close to the battlefield of Balaclava12 for sick and wounded soldiers of all rank(s)13. “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 festival14. She was decorated for her work by Britain, France and Turkey15 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 politics16.

All her life she followed an instinct to help comfort and understand and the individual patient was always her prime concern17. 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 life18.

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.

Sincerely yours


[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)]

1 Medical pioneer: what did she pioneer?

2 No private capital: but she owned her late mother’s boarding house, “my house” (WA, pp 7, 59), a substantial building; when setting up her business in the Crimea she told Soyer that she had “embarked a large capital” in “her new speculation” (CC, p 233)

3 No formal training: there was no nursing training at the time for anyone, including Nightingale.

4 Influential multi-disciplinary practitioner: what disciplines? Whom did she influence?

5 True nursing hero: where and when did she nurse? How was she heroic?

6 Her expertise in herbal remedies: but she added toxic metals to her herbal cures, notably “sugar of lead” or lead acetate and mercury chloride (calomel) (WA, p 31).

7 Spiritual healing: not a subject she mentioned in her memoir, any source?

8 Rushed to Britain: however, in her memoir she said that she went to London to attend to her gold mining stocks, and only there, after Nightingale and her nurses had left, did she decide she wanted to go, too. This was after the major battles, and the sinking of a major supply ship on 14 November 1854, as she noted in her memoir, when she was still thinking about applying (WA, p 74).

9 Her exuberance embarrassed the War Office: how do you know that? Seacole’s memoir is the only source available on the matter, and it says nothing of the sort (WA, pp 77-79).

10 Turned down by the much acclaimed “Angel Band” of more demure military nurses: many of them were not demure at all, and were dismissed for intoxication; in any event they had all left for the war before Seacole decided she wanted to go, so could hardly have turned her down (WA, p 74).

11 Funded her own journey: yes, with the proceeds of her previous business, and with the intention of making money with her investment, as she told Soyer (CC, p 233).

12 Close to the battlefield of Balaclava: but the Battle of Balaclava took place on 25 October 1854, before Seacole had even decided she wanted to go to the war.

13 Sick and wounded soldiers of all ranks: Seacole’s memoir describes a hut providing meals, take-away, a bar and store for officers, only a “canteen” for soldiers (WA, p 114). She announced the intention of opening the “British Hotel,” but in fact it was never a hotel. Those who knew it called it “Mrs Seacole’s hut” or “Mrs Seacole’s store.” There were no beds for anyone, let alone sick or wounded; those who went there were well enough to be walk-ins.

14 Funds were raised through a grand military festival. The festival raised little money; the fund that supported Seacole in her old age was raised in 1867, by subscription.

15 She was decorated for her work by Britain, France and Turkey: a point often made, but not true, nor did Seacole ever claim to have won any decorations, although she wore medals when back in London.

16 She provided an insight into the history of race politics: but she never discussed the plight of blacks, slave or free, in Jamaica; she herself lived in many respects as a white Jamaican, employing blacks, e.g. two black servants in the Panama and the Crimea (WA, pp 12, 36, 39); she frequently used racist language for others, including “nigger” (WA, pp 20, 45, 48) and never referred to herself as a black or African.

17 The individual patient was always her prime concern: where did she state this?

18 The first black woman in history to make her mark on British public life: with the proviso that she did not identify as a black; she called herself variously “yellow” (WA, pp 27, 34, 78) and “a little brown” or “brunette” (WA, p 4) and “a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin” (WA, p 14), for her skin was not “as dark as any nigger’s” (WA, p 48).

To HRH the Duchess of Cornwall

To HRH the Duchess of Cornwall

HRH the Duchess of Cornwall
Clarence House
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 On Nightingale see:

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

Yours sincerely