Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole | Women's History Month 2021 | Choose To Challenge

Mary Seacole, 1805 - 1881

Mary Seacole never earned a formal nursing qualification. Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 to James Grant, a Scottish lieutenant, and a Mrs. Grant, a Jamaican doctress. Seacole cut her teeth working for her mother at the hotel and convalescent home she ran, Blundell Hall. As a Jamaican doctress, her mother’s work extended beyond hotel management. She was the equivalent of a modern nurse practitioner, with a practice spanning nursing, midwifery, patient and nurse management, and the administration of traditional medicine. Her practice was marked by fastidious hygienic measures. As a result, in her years working for her mother, Seacole claimed never to have lost a mother or child in childbirth, a truly remarkable feat for her era. By the time she left Blundell Hall, Seacole was a fully-fledged doctress like her mother, turning her talents and experience to home nursing in Jamaica, and epidemic management in modern-day Panama (then New Granada). She came to the Crimean War front aged 50, with decades of experience under her belt. She also came alone: the British military’s nursing service and British employment sponsorship funds turned her down, likely for racist reasons. Even Florence Nightingale is said to have dismissed Seacole for her background and informal qualifications, apparently refusing to allow any association between her fleet of volunteer nurses and Seacole. 


Seacole set off anyway, and established a convalescent home much like her mother’s in Jamaica; the British Hotel in Balaclava, built with salvaged scrap material, opened its doors in early 1855. For the following year, Seacole provided healthcare, catering, and lodging to sick soldiers on the frontlines in Crimea. When the war ended in 1856, Seacole went to London, bankrupt but welcomed as a hero. She spent the following three decades provisioned for by community fundraising campaigns, celebrated such that she was even involved in the care of the British royal family. She died in 1881, leaving behind an autobiography–– Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands–– and a legacy that has only truly been excavated in recent years.