To Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health

To Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health

Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt, PC, MP
Secretary of State for Health
Richmond House, 79 Whitehall
London SW1A 2NS

January 20, 2013

Dear Mr Hunt

Brian Mawhinney, a predecessor in your office, launching the Mary Seacole awards in 1994, contributed significantly to the misinformation about Seacole in circulation. Presumably he did not write his own speech, and we accordingly wish to warn you of the bank of misinformation existing about Seacole in your own office.

In his speech the then secretary for health erroneously stated that Seacole had “considerable nursing skills and made a major contribution to nursing the wounded in the Crimean War,” and that she “later worked as a nurse in and around London.” She was “in fact,” he claimed, “an outstanding black British nurse.”

However Seacole did none of these things. She did not nurse the wounded in the Crimean War, and she did not nurse in London, at any time. She was a boarding house keeper in Jamaica, who later ran a restaurant/store in Panama and then in the Crimea. She was known to be kind to soldiers in providing herbal remedies to them-all walk-ins, not the wounded. She missed the three largest battles of the war, but did provide assistance on three days in 1855: 18 June, 23 August and 8 September-in each case a few hours, post-battle. She also gave out hot tea and lemonade to soldiers waiting transport to the Scutari hospitals. No doubt Mrs Seacole acted kindly on these occasions, but her work would hardly count as a “major” contribution.

She spent her last years in Britain, but was never a “British nurse,” for she never nursed in Britain. She is commonly called “black” now, but it should be realized that Seacole was three quarters white, proud of her Scots heritage, but not of her African heritage-the words “black” and “African” never appear in her memoir in connection with her. She was married to a white man, had a white business partner, and all her customers were white. Like white Jamaicans, she hired blacks-indeed she had two black servants with her both in Panama and the Crimea. To call her “black” then is somewhat incongruous, especially when it is realized that her own views of “good-for-nothing” blacks and “niggers” were far from enlightened, if understandable for the time. To name her now as a “black British nurse” is to misrepresent her.

The secretary for health was correct in describing Seacole as a “contemporary” of Nightingale’s, but so were millions of people-the two met probably for about five minutes, but at no time worked together, for the obvious reason that Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War was to provide nursing and better nutrition for ordinary soldiers, while Seacole was running a restaurant, bar, takeaway and catering service for officers. That they were both in London 1856-59 and 1865-81 signifies nothing, for Nightingale was then highly occupied in starting training for nurses and sending out nurses to other hospitals, while Seacole was then effectively retired (apart from briefly, in 1856, trying to run a shop at Aldershot).

We would add that there are a number of other genuine black nurses, and nurses of Asian and other non-white backgrounds who deserve attention for their contribution. This inordinate concentration on Seacole has had the unhappy result of ignoring important contributions to nursing by a number of non-white pioneers. Mrs K.A. Pratt, for example, was an early black nurse in the NHS, and a leading figure in nursing when she went back to Nigeria. She would be a worthy person to commemorate in an award. See

Yours sincerely