Welcome to BALA’s Women’s History Month initiative!
All month, we’ll be using this blog to pay tribute to historic women nurses who chose to challenge the status quo. Their stories inspire us in our work to serve women nurses of all experiences with not only shift-ready shoes, but also a platform.
Today, we’re celebrating Mary Seacole and Betsi Cadwaladr, colleagues of Florence Nightingale whose stories have been eclipsed by the long shadow she casts, but whose labor also saved countless lives in a war that turned into a public health crisis: the Crimean War.
Seacole and Cadwaladr’s backgrounds were in many ways the opposite of that of Nightingale, who was born into a wealthy élite, furnished with a comprehensive education and salaried by her own father. But their commitment to the work of nursing was no different than Nightingale’s: Seacole and Cadwaladr were fierce, compassionate, uncompromising nurses who comforted the dying and saved the sick, all the while defying racism, xenophobia, ageism, and classism.
Betsi Cadwaladr was born in Llanycil, Bala, Wales in 1789 (31 years before Nightingale was born). Cadwaladr grew up on a farm as one of 16 children raised by a single father. She began her career as a maid and assistant, during which time she learned both the English language and a love of adventure, then became a private nurse to wealthy statesmen, visiting most corners of the globe.
At age 65, she received a qualification in nursing from a London hospital and joined the British military as a nurse. She was posted to Scutari, Turkey–– where Florence Nightingale had set up shop. Nightingale is said to have disparaged Cadwaladr for her working-class background and Welsh heritage, yet she is also said to have developed a begrudging respect for Cadwaladr’s work. By all accounts, Cadwaladr nursed intuitively, flouting rules that might have led to lower standards of patient care and battling with suppliers to ensure that proper care could be delivered. Her commitment to her work ultimately led to her own illness; she returned home from the war sick with cholera and dysentery. She died in London in 1860, aged 71–– but not before having written an autobiography chronicling her long career.
Unlike Cadwaladr, Mary Seacole never earned a formal nursing qualification. Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 to a Scottish lieutenant and a Jamaican doctress. Seacole cut her teeth working for her mother at the hotel and convalescent home she ran. As a 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. 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, first working in Jamaica, and then working in epidemic management in New Granada (modern Panama). She came to the Crimean war front aged 50, with decades of experience under her belt. Of note, the British military’s nursing service and British employment sponsorship funds turned her down, likely due to her race. Even Nightingale is said to have dismissed Seacole for her background and informal qualifications.Seacole set to work anyway, and established a convalescent home, much like her mother’s, in Balaclava. The British Hotel 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 thirty years at the mercy of community fundraising campaigns for money, yet was so celebrated 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.