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