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#WomensHistoryMonth – Mary Seacole

By Alice Tegg

When one thinks of the Crimean War, one woman’s name usually comes to mind immediately. Florence Nightingale was undeniably a pioneer in the field of nursing, her work during and after the war still having influence over healthcare standards today. However, there was another woman on the frontline who was equally as inspiring but is often unfairly overlooked in the history books. Mary Seacole was a British-Jamaican nurse, who dedicated her life to the care of others. Despite having her request to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea refused by the British War Office, Seacole managed to fund her own travel there and set up the British Hotel for wounded soldiers close to the frontline. This meant she could provide care and medical attention much faster than was possible in Nightingale’s hospital, situated hundreds of miles from the fighting. She was known to venture onto the battlefield under live fire to nurse wounded soldiers and provide urgent, life-saving treatment, even at the risk of her own. Fondly named ‘Mother Seacole’ by her patients, her unrelenting dedication to the sick didn’t go unrecognised. Returning to England practically penniless, a gala was held in her name by her many admirers; tens of thousands of people attended to raise funds for the nurse who gave so much for nothing in return. 

Sketch of Mary Seacole’s British Hotel in Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818–1913)

At the time, Seacole and Nightingale were as renowned as each other back in Britain. So why do many of us only know of the latter? The reason why Seacole’s role in the Crimean War has historically been downplayed is up for debate. Some may say it’s a race issue, or it could be argued that, because she pinned her focus almost exclusively on her patients, instead of working to reshape nursing and healthcare like Nightingale, her influence hasn’t been considered as significant. Whatever the reason, I think this extraordinary woman deserves greater recognition for not only the selfless care she provided to soldiers in an unimaginably difficult environment, but also for overcoming adversity to achieve her life’s mission. There is plenty of room in the textbooks to celebrate the achievements of both of these strong, inspirational women on the frontline.