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
May 16, 2013

Dear Mr Hunt

It is bad enough that the Royal College of Nursing and Unison are promoting the replacement of Florence Nightingale with Mary Seacole as the “real founder” of nursing, but the announcement of your department’s new programme, “Heroes of Healthcare” is yet worse: Mary Seacole for nursing, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, women in medicine; Edward Jenner, medicine and Nye Bevan, the healthcare system. This is not to protest celebrating “heroes of healthcare,” far from it, and we note with approval the gender balance, two men and two women.

Possibly the inclusion of Mary Seacole was intended to give racial balance, as she is typically portrayed as a “black Briton,” although she was three quarters white, had a white husband, business partner and white customers, and was proud of her Scottish heritage but not her “Creole” (“blacks” in her writing refer to others, not herself). A better choice for race balance might be the U.K. trained Nigerian Mrs K.A. Pratt, who truly was a nurse, although her contributions were to nursing proper more than health care as a system.

Mrs Seacole was an honourable and generous businesswoman, as a restaurant/bar/caterer and boarding house proprietress, not a nurse. She called herself “doctress” for her use of traditional herbals. She also used lethal metals in her “remedies,” a point omitted by her promoters. She left a fine memoir and her life does deserve celebration. However as she made no contribution to healthcare in Britain or anywhere, it is grossly misleading to name her a “healthcare hero.” There are numerous errors of fact in your department’s announcement.

The missing person in your awards package is Florence Nightingale, who was the major founder of nursing and a visionary of public health care. She articulated the principle, in 1864, of quality health care for all, including the poorest (as opposed to mere charity wards). The National Health Service in 1948 is unthinkable without her decades of work of reforming the terrible workhouse infirmaries, making them into real hospitals, with training, when bedsharing, and no trained nurses, were the norm.

A timeline comparing the contributions of Nightingale and Seacole is appended for your information, and for your officials. Do please tell use what is missing for Seacole, what contributions your department was thinking of when preparing this announcement. Nightingale’s achievements are only summary in our timeline–she did decades of good work both to establish nursing and improve health care and hospitals generally.

Sincerely yours