To Ian Blatchford, director, The Science Museum

To: Ian Blatchford, director
Science Museum
November 13, 2016

re: Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine. Mary Seacole (1805-81)

Dear Mr Blatchford

We are puzzled as to why a Science Museum would have even a short item on its web resource Exploring the History of Medicine on someone not known for any scientific achievement, Mary Seacole, fine person and celebrity that she was.

That this short entry should be laced with factual errors is astonishing. People expect a Science Museum to have a serious regard for research standards, at least basic fact checking, but your few correct points are surrounded by exaggerations and actual errors. As well, the visual chosen is misleading. It shows Seacole wearing medals she did not win, omitting that relevant point. Herewith evident factual errors.

1. You call her a “Nurse,” but Seacole did not do anything resembling nursing, nor ever claimed to have. She frequently used the term “doctress” as a descriptor, and once “doctress, nurse and mother” (in her Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, p 124). The term “nurse,” however, she reserved for Nightingale and her nurses.

2. You have her learning “medicine and nursing” from her mother, but she called her mother an “admirable doctress” (p 2), meaning a herbalist, and never mentioned learning nursing from her.

3. She “helped soldiers during the Crimean War.” Yes, but her main activity was a business serving officers, where she charged commercial prices for her fine food, wine, catering, etc. The first aid she gave to soldiers was confined to 3 days, post-battle, when she went onto the battlefield after selling wine and sandwiches to spectators. Your account makes it look like helping soldiers was her main activity.

4. Her husband was a “naval officer.” No, he was a merchant. The two ran a store together in Jamaica.

5. “She spent a lot of time nursing in Panama.” But if you look at her book, the “nursing,” was limited to outbreaks of epidemics. Her main work was a store.

6. “At the start of the Crimean War in 1853 she went to London to offer her services.” No, Turkey and Russia were at war with each other in 1853, but Britain only joined in March 1854, and the army reached the Crimea only in September 1854. Seacole went back to Panama on business after Britain declared war, and only went to London in September 1854, and that for business reasons (see her memoir, Chapter 8).

7. “Her application to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing team was turned down.” No. Nightingale had already left by the time Seacole decided that she wanted to go, too (pp 73-76). It is a bit much to say that she was turned down when she never handed in the necessary application and references. Instead, after Nightingale had left, Seacole dropped into various offices informally, seeking a post, but too late. The second team had left, too. There was no “team” to go with when she (informally) applied!

8. Instead of giving up, she went “at her own expense.” But why should anyone else pay for her? She and her partner had plans to open a business.

9. Their “roughly built hotel.” No, Seacole announced the intention of opening a “mess table with comfortable quarters” (p 81) for officers, but, on the advice of Alexis Soyer, kept the business to food, wine, catering, etc., no overnight stays. There was NO hotel.

10. The “popular canteen serving good food.” Really? Seacole’s book gives 3 chapters to the food and wine she served officers, but not a word as to what was served in the “canteen for the soldiery” (p 114).

11. “She would take mules with food, wine and medicines across country to the battlefield front lines.” Hardly: she did this on 3 occasions, dates given; you make it sound like a regular activity, when it was 3 times in a two-year war (she missed the first 3, major, battles of the war, busy in London on her business interests).

12. “She obtained special passes.” No, the day after the last battle, on the fall of Sebastopol, she got a special pass to enter the city. Once. Further, her memoir makes it clear that this expedition was largely social (p 173). She also picked up a fair bit of “plunder.” You do exaggerate!

13. She looked after “the wounded and dying on both sides.” On 3 occasions.

14. She went bankrupt by “debts run up by soldiers at the British Hotel.” No. Nor did she ever say so. They had leftover stock and could not sell it when the army returned to England. The debts at the business were unpaid bills by customers, i.e., officers and the war correspondent.

If you really wanted to pursue the “History of Medicine” theme, you might want to explore Seacole’s use of lead and mercury, her dehydration of bowel patients when rehydration is needed (not then known). She herself admitted making “lamentable blunders” in her remedies (p 31), a topic that would be worth pursuing but you do not even mention this.

Finally, the Bibliography cites only sources that praise Seacole, several of which give grossly exaggerated accounts of her work. More careful sources, which cite primary sources, are available. See Lynn McDonald, Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, 2014 and a website

Sincerely yours

[ 17 members of the Nightingale Society ]