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