Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole (1853-1856) overcame official indifference and prejudice. She got herself out to the war by her own efforts and at her own expense; risked her life to bring comfort to the wounded and dying soldiers; and became a black woman who made her mark on British public life.

Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier, and her mother was a practitioner of traditional Jamaican medicine and had a boarding house where she cared for invalid soldiers and their wives. Mary learned about medicine from her mother, soon gaining her own reputation as a 'skilful nurse and doctress'.

Mary travelled widely - there were two trips to Britain, and in 1851, she joined her brother Edward in Panama, where she opened a hotel. Soon she had saved her first cholera patient, and gained extensive knowledge of the pathology of this disease - which she herself contracted and recovered from.

She was widely praised for her work in treating cholera, and returned to Jamaica in 1853, where there was a yellow fever epidemic. The medical authorities came to her to provide nurses to care for the sick soldiers. She travelled again to London, where she heard about the Crimean war and how the nursing system there had collapsed.

She made applications to the War Office, the army medical department, and the secretary of war to be allowed to go to the Crimea and tend to the sick and wounded but was rejected by each department. A distant relative of hers, was going to Balaclava on business, and they agreed to launch a firm called Seacole and Day, which would be a general store and hotel near the British camp in the Crimea.

So, at the age of 50, with her large stock of medicines, Mary went to the battle zone as a sutler - a person who follows the army and sells provisions to the troops. The moment she arrived in Balaclava there were sick and wounded to attend to. She opened her British Hotel in the summer of 1855, near the besieged city of Sevastopol. Soon the entire British army knew of 'Mother Seacole's'. The soldiers were her sons and she was their mother. She was awarded a Crimean medal, and a bust was made of her by Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, sculptor and nephew of Queen Victoria.

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