Mother Seacole: How Mary Seacole Shaped Nursing

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated September 27, 2023
    Mary Seacole was an opinionated, deeply compassionate nursing pioneer whose actions in peace and wartime left an enduring impression on the profession.
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    Mary Grant Seacole, known as “Mother Seacole” by her patients, was a contemporary of Florence Nightingale. Yet, while Nightingale’s name rings through the halls of nearly every nursing program, Seacole was all but forgotten until 1980, when historians rediscovered her story. Now called the “Greatest Black Briton,” her statue outside St. Thomas Hospital in London is the first to honor a Black woman in the U.K.

    On this page, we explore the early years of Seacole’s life that influenced her pursuit of healthcare and business. As she matured, she created a unique blend of her two interests, which ultimately served her patients in Panama, Crimea, and Jamaica.

    The Early Life of Mary Seacole

    Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant in Jamaica. At the time, Jamaica was part of the British Empire, which is why she was later called the Greatest Black Briton. Seacole kept her date of birth a secret, and it was only later learned from her death certificate in 1881 that she was born in 1805.

    From her autobiography, we learn, “As a female, and a widow, I may be well excused giving the precise date of this important event. But I do not mind confessing that the century and myself were both young together, and that we have grown side-by-side into age and consequence.”

    Seacole’s father was an officer in the British Army and originally from Scotland. Her mother was a free Jamaican whose patients knew her as “doctress,” or medicine woman, skilled in traditional Jamaican medicine. She ran a boarding house for disabled sailors and soldiers and those suffering from yellow fever.

    As a young child, Seacole learned to read and write from her father and was an eager student of the healing arts, which she learned from her mother. By the time she was 12 years old, Seacole was helping her mother run the boarding house and care for the residents.

    Just three years later, at the age of 15, she traveled with relatives to England and stayed for one year. There, she learned more about European medicine to supplement her training in traditional Caribbean herbal medicine.

    This was the first of several trips she made throughout her life. In her autobiography, Seacole described her love of travel.

    “As I grew into womanhood, I began to indulge that longing which will never leave me while I have health and vigour,” she wrote. “I was never weary of tracing upon an old map the route to England; and never followed with my gaze the stately ships homeward bound without longing to be in them, and see the blue hills of Jamaica fade into the distance.”

    In her teens, she took two trips and spent three years in London before traveling to the Bahamas, Haiti, and Cuba. During her travels, she bought goods to sell when she returned to Kingston.

    In 1836, at 31 years of age, she married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, whom she described as the godson of Admiral Lord Nelson. She and her husband opened a supply store in Black River. During this time, Edwin became unwell, and the store did not do well.

    The couple moved back to her mother’s boarding house, where Edwin died in 1844, just eight years after their marriage. Seacole’s mother died the same year. The deaths devastated Seacole, who then turned her focus and energy to traveling and nursing.

    Mary Seacole’s Pursuit of Healing

    Seacole has been described as a “daring adventurer of the 19th century” at a time in history when women, and particularly women of mixed race, faced many barriers when venturing into business or traveling independently.

    Cholera Outbreak in Panama

    After the death of her mother and husband, Seacole headed to Panama. She and her brother ran a hotel, and Seacole opened a store across the street. They catered to prospectors headed to the California Gold Rush who were crossing to avoid the dangerous journey around Cape Horn or the long overland journey.

    Panama had become a crossroads of interoceanic travel and the fastest route to California. While in Panama, Seacole contracted a mild case of cholera during the massive outbreak that stopped work on the Panama railroad. Seacole had experience with cholera as it had devastated her home in Kingston before she left for Panama.

    Cholera is spread through contaminated food and water. Panama had become both a place of economic opportunity and an area that suffered many deaths from cholera, yellow fever, and malaria.

    During her time in Panama, Seacole treated many patients with cholera, using commonly prescribed treatments by doctors at the time that are now known to be harmful.

    They included emetics to induce vomiting and mercury chloride, which is odorless, colorless, and extremely toxic. Mercury chloride is highly corrosive and later was used as a fungicide and rat poison. In her book, Seacole said there were “blunders” in treatment.

    Seacole was a popular doctress, and when she left Panama, she was given a farewell party. During one speech, a man lamented that Seacole’s skin wasn’t white as it would have made her more acceptable. Seacole did not allow the prejudice to be ignored and responded that her skin color made no difference to her work.

    She went on to say that even if her skin had been darker, she would have been respected by others whose respect she valued.

    Seacole Journeys to Crimea

    Seacole returned to Kingston in 1853, where she learned of the war being waged over Crimea, a strategic peninsula in the Black Sea. Seacole had become familiar with many British regiments while caring for officers and soldiers at her mother’s boarding house.

    On her return to Kingston, she watched as many she knew left to fight in Crimea. Seacole returned to Panama to wind up her business and did some gold prospecting. By 1854 she traveled to England to attend to her unprofitable gold investments. It was there that she saw advertisements for hospital nurses to serve in Crimea.

    After a supply ship sunk in November, Seacole abandoned her gold speculation and focused on offering her skills to nurse the injured and sick in Crimea. She applied to the War Department in England. Despite glowing recommendations from officials who knew her work, she was told that all the positions had been filled.

    To make the intent clear, they also told her she would not be chosen even if a vacancy did open. Soldiers were dying in Crimea, not only from wounds but also from dysentery and cholera. Seacole believed her experience with these diseases would help the men who had become her friends.

    Undaunted, Seacole wrote a letter to Florence Nightingale to introduce herself, but one of Nightingale’s assistants rejected her upon introduction.

    Since she was not allowed to join Nightingale in Turkey at the hospital, Seacole financed her own way to Crimea with a relative of her husband, Thomas Day. During their journey, they stayed the night in Scutari, Turkey, at Florence Nightingale’s hospital.

    They arrived in March 1855 after many of the major battles had been fought. Together they opened the British Hotel located just two miles from where the soldiers were stationed in Balaclava, Crimea.

    The hotel was a respite for sick and recovering soldiers. While Nightingale’s hospital was hundreds of miles from the front line, Seacole often visited the battlefields to tend to wounded soldiers, sometimes under fire. She would set out with bandages, needles, thread, medicines, and food and drink to tend to the soldier’s needs.

    In Crimea, on the battlefield, she became known as “Mother Seacole” for her tender and compassionate care of the sick and wounded. Seacole and Day’s business also thrived as the peace treaty was being negotiated.

    Soldiers and officers found their way to the British Hotel for cricket matches, dinner parties, races, and theater. But the pair miscalculated how long negotiations would take and bought expensive supplies for the hotel.

    The treaty was signed on March 30, 1856, and business quickly dried up. They couldn’t sell the supplies before leaving for England. Seacole set up a store near an army base in England, but it also failed.

    The Nursing Legacy of Mary Jane Seacole

    Seacole was bankrupt but received many praises from soldiers whom she had helped. The Mary Seacole Trust records the events that followed.

    “The Times War Correspondent, Sir William H. Russell, wrote of Mary in 1857: ‘I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.'”

    Over 80,000 people attended a four-day fundraising gala in her honor. Yet, while well attended, the event raised very little money. Seacole again stepped away from what was expected and published an autobiography that same year entitled “The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands,” which became an instant bestseller.

    A second Seacole Fund was sponsored by Queen Victoria, the Duke of Edinburgh, and his brother, the future King Edward VII. This ensured a comfortable income for the remaining years of her life.

    Seacole died of a stroke on May 14, 1881, at age 76, and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

    The Lasting Impact of Mother Seacole

    Seacole made a significant impact on the people she cared for and those who heard of her exploits throughout her business and nursing ventures. Seacole always considered herself a citizen of Britain, but it has been the Jamaican people who have kept her memory alive.

    On the 100th anniversary of the Crimean War, the Jamaican Nurses Association renamed its headquarters The Mary Seacole House. Her gravestone was restored in the early 1970s, and a ward at Kingston General Hospital was named after her.

    In 1990, Seacole was posthumously awarded the country’s third-highest honor: the Order of Merit.

    Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale were contemporaries who both contributed to the growth and development of nursing. Nightingale’s strengths were organization and mathematical analysis of the data, while Seacole took a more hands-on approach. Some historians refer to her as the first nurse practitioner.

    Nursing has benefited from the positive attributes of both nurses as the profession has grown and expanded. Seacole worked hard to overcome racism by using her talent and skill, earning her a place as a powerful influence in nursing history.

    Despite racial discrimination and encountering resistance at nearly every turn, Seacole remained steadfast in her determination to serve the British soldiers. Her lasting legacy as a nurse, role model, entrepreneur, and high achiever has become the hallmark of nurses and nurse practitioners everywhere.