To Dr Peter Carter and Cecilia Anim, RCN

Dr Peter Carter, chief executive, and
Cecilia Anim, president
Royal College of Nursing
20 Cavendish Sq
London W1G 0RN

April 5, 2015

Dear Dr Carter and Ms Anim

We continue to be concerned with the wildly inaccurate presentation of Mary Seacole by the RCN, in the Nursing Standard, your website and events. We believe that the life of Mrs Seacole deserves celebration, for her own merits. Instead, she has been appropriated as the equal or even superior to Nightingale, something she never claimed: see her delightful memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.

We note with dismay the continued denigration of Florence Nightingale, the major founder of nursing, a major hospital reformer and the early, great, visionary of public health care.

Her bicentenary will be celebrated in 2020, yet it is difficult to imagine any appropriate celebration in the U.K., given the ongoing disparagement of her life, contributions and character.

Not one nurse or nursing organization protested when the BBC put out an “educational” video on Mary Seacole which had an actress portray Nightingale as a racist, with an entirely fictional anti-black script. We protested and, after a year and a half of runaround by BBC official, the BBC Trustees ruled that the video was “materially inaccurate.”

We received no answer to our enquiries to the RCN in 2012, followed up in 2013, as to what Seacole did to pioneer nursing.

Yet stories published in the Nursing Standard repeatedly call her a “pioneer” nurse, and equate her work with that of Nightingale, without ever mentioning a specific. We are unaware of any work Seacole did to found the nursing profession. She gave first aid on three occasions on the battlefield during the Crimean War, post-battle–after serving sandwiches and wine to spectators.

This was greatly appreciated, but hardly qualifies as “battlefield nursing” or makes her a nursing “pioneer.”

In her memoir, Seacole recounts visiting the Land Transport Corps Hospital (one nursed by Nightingale’s team) to distribute magazines and visit. Again, this shows her to have been a kind volunteer, but has nothing to do with founding a profession.

Seacole’s own book reports her use of lead acetate and mercury chloride in “remedies” for cholera–indeed she considered that adding lead acetate helped with “stubborn” cases (WA p 31).

Doctors, it must be acknowledged, were then using such mistaken “remedies,” and the effective cure for cholera and other bowel diseases, oral rehydration therapy, only came into use in the 1960s. Seacole could hardly have known better, but to credit her with “pioneering” nursing, and even being a leading “nurse practitioner,” is simply wrong. Yet she is routinely held to be “role model” for nurses.

We query Jean Gray’s presentation of Nightingale, Seacole and Cavell as “equal heroes,” who deserve “equal recognition” (Nursing Standard 28,4 p. 28). Cavell, of course, is celebrated for her bravery and patriotism, not nursing–her life was cut short. Cavell, incidentally, trained at a hospital where Nightingale mentored the matron, and was night superintendent at a workhouse infirmary where Nightingale got trained nursing started.

There are many nurses apart from Nightingale who made excellent contributions to early nursing, yet they are ignored.

Gray should have told us exactly what Cavell and Seacole did that of the same significance to Nightingale’s decades of work to build the profession. Why do you continue to ignore significant, authentic pioneers?

Cecilia Anim is quoted as calling for celebration of “Seacole’s uniqueness and commitment to the profession” (Nursing Standard 27,37 p 10). She was certainly unique, and had many fine qualities, but we ask what did she do for the nursing profession?

We note that the Nursing Standard does not permit, or even send out for peer review, articles that take a critical view of Seacole, no matter how well documented they are. This is unworthy of a professional journal.

The contention that Mary Seacole was “rejected” as a nurse by Nightingale, or someone representing her, is all too frequently made, but is contradicted by available primary sources, including her own memoir. Seacole never submitted the required application. Moreover, she was late starting her informal calls on government offices to apply: Nightingale certainly had already left, and probably the second team had left, too. No one in the RCN seems willing to acknowledge that Seacole’s trip to London in autumn 1854 was to attend to her gold stocks, not to become an army nurse, that it was only after 2 months of unsuccessful efforts on those stocks that she decided to try to become an army nurse–too late. Yet this is clear in her memoir (WA, p. 71).

Nightingale called for nurses to honest, truthful and trustworthy in their work. We concur, adding only that this is a good standard for nursing organizations and journals as well.

Yours sincerely

To Andrea Spyropoulos and Peter Carter, RCN

Andrea Spyropoulos, president, Royal College of Nursing
Peter Carter, chief executive
20 Cavendish Sq
London W1G 0RN

November 5, 2012

Dear Ms Spyropoulos and Dr Carter

We are writing with concern over the RCN’s presentation of Mary Seacole as a pioneering nurse. We do not oppose honouring Seacole for her own merits, but rather, alas, the sizable misinformation campaign now associated with her. Nor do we oppose her being honoured with a statue, although we do most strenuously oppose its being erected at St Thomas’ Hospital with the designation “Pioneer Nurse,” a term clearly applicable to Nightingale, especially at her hospital–the home for more than a century of her nursing school, and a hospital whose design she influenced, in the cause of improved, safer hospital design–surely a matter for ongoing, not merely historical, concern.

We ask for the reasons for the remarks of RCN leaders, published in the Nursing Standard:

1. From, Sylvia Denton, RCN president in 2004, when she led the call for a monument to Seacole and stated: “Against all odds, she had an unshakeable belief in the power of nursing to make a difference. Mrs Seacole changed the face of modern nursing,” in Carol Davis, “Living Her Dream,” 18,32 (21 April 2004):12. What did she change? From what to what? We consider that Nightingale changed the face of modern nursing, and could go on for a very long time explaining how, but Seacole was a “doctress” or herbalist, and to our knowledge never was a nurse.

2. “RCN general secretary Peter Carter said: ‘There are three historical female figures in nursing who deserve respect, Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and Edith Cavell. They are three different women and it saddens me that we cannot celebrate all three in equal measure,” in Petra Kendall-Raynor, “Choice of Nightingale’s ‘Shrine’ for Seacole Memorial Contested” 21,34 (2 May 2007):8. But what is equal about their contributions? Edith Cavell is celebrated for her bravery, not her nursing (which was unhappily cut short). What exactly did Mary Seacole do to establish the nursing profession, in the U.K., or anywhere? If she nursed at a hospital, which? Did she write a book on nursing? What? Mentored nurses? Name some. Sent out teams of nurses to start professional nursing in other cities and countries? Where? We append Did You Know? about Nightingale’s contributions for reference.

3. The RCN website on the Mary Seacole stamp issued by the Royal Mail, that Seacole was taught “traditional African herbal medicine and midwifery by her mother,” when her memoir never mentions African remedies or midwifery but merely calls her mother “an admirable doctress” (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands 2), from whom she learned “a great deal of Creole medicinal art” (5). She is said to have “learned to treat cholera, yellow fever and other tropical diseases in her travels to Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas, the USA and England,” although in her memoir she mentioned Haiti and Cuba only in passing (“I visited also Hayti and Cuba” (5), and was never in the U.S.; in the Bahamas she collected “handsome shells and rare shellwork” for sale back in Jamaica, where they caused “a sensation” (5). When she earlier lived in England for 2 years, she sold West Indian preserves and pickles (4). When she came in 1854 her purpose was to look after her gold stocks (74).
Further, according to the RCN website, she learned about “surgical techniques and European medical practice” while in England; what? Where? (she said not a word to that effect in her memoir).

4. The RCN, jointly with other organizations, administers the Mary Seacole Leadership Awards, funded by the Dept of Health. A website providing application material states that the awards emphasize “Mary Seacole’s pioneering role in leadership.” Please state concretely what that pioneering leadership was.

We ask you to forward this request for information to the other officials (or former officials) of the RCN as necessary for response.

Yours sincerely