To all Westminster MPs
July 17, 2013
We are writing with concern about the decision of the Department for Education to remove Florence Nightingale from the National Curriculum, but to continue recognition of Mary Seacole. We are concerned as well with the Department of Health’s announcement that Mary Seacole should be honoured as one of four new “Pioneers of Health Care,” excluding Nightingale, who was very much a pioneer of health care, a visionary advocating quality care for all, as well as being the major founder of the modern profession of nursing.We do not oppose honouring Seacole, but rather the exaggerated claims made for her, often with derogatory statements about Nightingale. Seacole is now given credit for work that Nightingale did.
The Early Day Motion of January 2013 urging the continued inclusion of Seacole in the National Curriculum is wrong from beginning to end. She was a decent, generous person, a businesswoman serving officers. Information on what she actually did, with rebuttals of misinformation, is available on www.maryseacole.info. That website also provides a Timeline, which gives the activities of both Nightingale and Seacole. Seacole’s own memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (and a good read) contradicts many of the points made in your motion.
“That this House is aware of history which records the many heroic and compassionate acts carried out unselfishly by renowned war nursing heroine Mary Seacole for innumerable wounded soldiers injured on the Crimean War’s bloody battlefields.”
- Seacole was unselfish and on three occasions gave first aid on the battlefield, after selling food and drink to spectators and officers. Since she missed the first three, major, battles, the “innumerable wounded” point is excessive.
- Seacole was recognized at the time for her warmth and generosity, not as a war heroine or health care advocate.
Recognition “of her contribution shortly to be revealed by the unveiling of a large bronze statue in her memory to be erected in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital facing the Houses of Parliament.”
- Unfortunately the statue is slated to name her “Pioneer Nurse,” which she was not, nor did she ever claim to be a nurse at all. She called herself a “doctress,” used traditional herbal remedies, but also added toxic substances, notably lead and mercury.
- St Thomas’ Hospital was the home for more than a century of Nightingale’s school of nursing, the first secular training school for nurses in the world, and which for decades influenced nursing throughout the world. Seacole in fact held no grudge against Nightingale. According to her memoir they met once, for about 5 minutes, a cordial meeting when Seacole asked for a bed for the night, which Nightingale found for her. (Seacole was en route to the Crimea to start her business.)
Seacole helped “establish a centre to administer the sick and tended to the wounded on the battlefield throughout much of the time under bombardment.”
- The “centre” was a hut, which served as a restaurant/bar/store/takeaway/catering service for officers. The “bombardment” is fiction; everyone near the front was at risk of an odd stray shell, and joked about being “under fire.”
Seacole was “little rewarded for all of her distinguished service in the field…and had to declare bankruptcy.”
- True, Seacole and her business partner had to declare bankruptcy, the result of a bad business decision. After the fall of Sebastopol, they expanded their stock and did a roaring trade for many months, “my restaurant was always full,” said Seacole. When the peace treaty was signed and the officers left, the stock could not be sold. Seacole herself took a hammer to cases of red wine, rather than let the Russians get them for free.
- Seacole was supported after the bankruptcy by money raised for her, mainly by officers. She was able to retire in ease.
Nightingale’s achievements show her national and international significance. Her superb work in statistics and research methodology make her an especially useful model also for girls. In 1864 she called for quality health care for the poor as well as the better off, a principle later enshrined in the 1948 National Health Service. Aneurin Bevan is (rightly) honoured as one of the four “Pioneers of Health Care.” Nightingale deserves to be there, too. As scandals in hospital care emerge, the need for her principles of compassion in patient care, and insistence on high standards of supervision and monitoring to check results all seem even better and better as ideas. What a time to exclude her!
This is not an either-or argument. People should be honoured for their merits. Nightingale’s are clear. Seacole should be honoured for hers, not Nightingale’s, nor the fictional claims made for her by her over-enthusiastic supporters.
We have written the Secretaries of State for Education and Health, as well as other supporters of the Seacole campaign, but as yet have received no reply as to what Seacole’s nursing and health care achievements actually were. Please tell us!
[14 members of the Nightingale Society]