Mary Seacole: Disease and Care of the Wounded, from Jamaica to the Crimea

Mary Seacole: Disease and Care of the Wounded, from Jamaica to the Crimea

While Florence Nightingale is legendary in the history of nursing because of her foundational role in the creation of Western healthcare systems, she was not the only important woman in this history. It is perhaps unsurprising that the white, English-born, Nightingale’s contribution to modern nursing eclipses that of her contemporary, Mary Seacole, a mixed-race Jamaican woman.

Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 to a black Jamaican mother and white British father. Seacole’s mother fostered her love for the care of others, while her father instilled in her the desire to travel. Seacole grew up among her father’s army, navy, and medical corps colleagues and assisted in her mother’s boarding house, preparing and using traditional African creole medicines derived from enslaved practices and practicing nursing techniques when providing wound care for visiting patients.1

This unique education led to Seacole’s travels to Central America, England, and later the Crimea, as a sutler selling medical supplies to companies and the military. She was determined to provide medical care in the face of adversity, in both her own personal struggle with racial prejudice and when ministering to the health crises of others.

Only known photograph of Mary Seacole. (Wikimedia Commons)

Seacole’s father was a British army officer who was posted to Jamaica at the turn of the nineteenth century, then a strategic corner of the British Empire and one of the world’s most prominent slave societies. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jamaica led the world trade in sugar, the production and export of which relied upon enslaved Africans who labored on the plantations. It was there that Seacole’s father married her mother, a free(d) Jamaican creole woman, who regarded herself as a healer.2

Under her mother’s tutelage, Seacole learned traditional African and Caribbean herbal remedies, acquired nursing expertise, and developed an affinity for practicing medicine.3 Her ambitions are apparent in her diaries where, as a child, Seacole describes how she made “use of the little knowledge acquired from watching my mother, upon a great sufferer – my doll.”4

While her mother influenced her interest in healing techniques, her father’s military position also facilitated her nursing career. Seacole attributed to her father her lifelong “affection for a camp-life (and) the pomp, pride and circumstance of glorious war.”5 Seacole’s nursing career began through an unofficial apprenticeship from the British Military and Naval Surgeons based in Kingston. While she never received any “official” accreditation, in 1850 she applied her medical knowledge and experiences by nursing those who had succumbed to the Jamaican cholera outbreak of that year.

Sketch of Mary Seacole’s “British Hotel” in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913). (Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly after the epidemic had subsided, Seacole traveled to join her brother in Panama to help with the establishment of a hotel and store. While in Panama, Seacole became renowned as a healer, working with her brother to treat victims of a cholera outbreak in the capital.6

Her work in both Jamaica and Panama led to her position as supervisor of nursing services in the Kingston Headquarters of the British Army in Jamaica in 1854. When the Crimean War broke out, along with a cholera epidemic, Mary felt well-equipped to serve her British compatriots on the battlefield as a nurse.

Modern Warfare, Modern Nursing

The Crimean War was fought between the four dominant colonial powers of the nineteenth century: the British, French, Ottoman, and Russian empires. The war stemmed from religious control over the Ottoman Levant, but also from disputed trade routes and shifting economic control. The Crimean War was the first war in which European armies employed new military technology like long-distance ballistic projectiles, which led to greater casualties.7

In this environment, modern-day emergency battlefield medicine and surgery emerged.8 First responders, stretcher-bearers, and mobile first aid stations engaged in both surface and seaborne medical evacuations of casualties. It had only been a quarter of a century before, during the Napoleonic Wars, that Surgeon General Dominique-Jean Larrey, the “father of battlefield medicine,” determined that delays in evacuation meant that the injured often succumbed to their wounds before treatment. He developed a systematic ambulatory evaluation process of evacuation and treatment termed “the triage.”9

Crimean War: allegorical image of death appearing over the battlefield. Coloured aquatint by J. Harris, 1856, after O. Norie and W. Bullock Webster. (Wellcome Library)

Despite the new opportunities for trauma medicine in Crimea, it was actually cholera that brought Mary Seacole across the world. Cholera outbreaks were just as dangerous to troops as weapon wounds, and a particularly vicious epidemic in Bulgaria steadily weakened the chances of a British victory against Russia. The news of cholera may have inspired Seacole to travel to England to volunteer with nursing contingents leaving for the Crimea due to her extensive experience with the disease in Jamaica and Panama. Telegraph and popular press accounts across the Empire recounted the increasing number of deaths from dysentery and cholera in the Crimea.

Certain she could assist, Seacole funded her own passage and arrived in London in 1854. However, British officials, including Florence Nightingale, rejected Seacole’s attempts to join the nursing corps despite her glowing references.10 Seacole, with first-hand experience in public health care during cholera outbreaks, was surprised. In her autobiography, Seacole wrote that she felt this rejection was racially motivated because her “blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin.”11

Florence Nightingale at Scutari Hospital, 1856, plus a portrait drawing. (Wellcome Library)

Both voluntary and government agencies’ rejection of Seacole was perhaps unsurprising given that slavery had only recently been abolished in the British Caribbean in 1833.12 Jessica Nelson has argued that Seacole regarded herself according to her geographic location. In Jamaica, she referred to herself as creole; in Crimea, as English. Nelson suggests that Seacole viewed her skin color as unimportant to her status as an Englishwoman.13 It seems others did not.

Undeterred by her unsuccessful application in London, Seacole set sail for the Crimea in January 1855. Seacole arrived in Constantinople in March of that year, bearing a written introduction from a doctor whom she had encountered on her long sea voyage. She met with Nightingale, as an initial point of contact, who despite her previous prejudices, arranged overnight accommodation for Seacole. Seacole saw the need to be at the battlefront city of Balaclava, and traveled there immediately to establish the British Hotel, a boarding house like her mother’s with two rooms, a store, and a canteen providing “good foods and simples cures.”14 She frequently visited the battlefield and on at least two occasions dressed the wounded and cared for the dying, despite mortal danger to herself.15

With the dawn of modern war, the British did not possess a sophisticated medical evacuation plan for impending mass casualties. The wounded relied on a complex seaborn evacuation across the Black Sea to military hospitals in Constantinople. Conditions at unprepared military hospitals were abominable and with increasing numbers, crisis ensued.16 Urgent, dynamic interventions were required to avoid catastrophe.

Mary Seacole statue, St Thomas’ Hospital. (Wikimedia Commons)

At this critical point, a legacy was forged. Nightingale arrived in the Scutari military hospital in the eastern part of Istanbul and assisted physicians in coordinating care of the wounded flooding the facility and organized the ancillary, paramedical, and nursing staff.17 Logistically, Nightingale laid the foundation for the professionalization of nursing.18

The focus on the institutional efforts of Nightingale, however, overlooks how nurses like Seacole, who combined all the qualities needed in a trauma nurse, worked informally to advance standards of care on the battlefield. Despite being rejected by the official British Army, Seacole provided incalculable care in the war-torn region where she established herself without regards to her own life.

Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole are synonymous with the emerging professionalization of healthcare in the nineteenth century. Mary Seacole overcame significant prejudices to provide care and the essentials of public health for the suffering. Despite racial stereotypes, Seacole gained a reputation as a healer and combated emerging public health crises by employing skills she gained from both agents of the British empire — the military colonists occupying Jamaica — and her mother. Seacole administered those skills in Jamaica, Panama, and the Crimea, selflessly serving the very imperial ambitions that created their urgent need in the first place.

Seacole cared for a global community beyond the Caribbean. After the Crimea, Seacole’s charitable work continued in England where she advocated for wives, mothers, and children of the dead who served the Empire.19 Seacole’s travels, her “adventures in other lands,” and noble public work became her legacy when she died in 1881.20

Mary Seacole’s failed endeavors to deploy with Nightingale’s contingent of nurses may have been the result of racial prejudice. Undetered, Seacole possessed the necessary requirements to practice nursing, ultimately creating a legacy of care for the diseased and wounded in the Crimea, the first theater of modern warfare


  1. James A. Delle, “The Material and Cognitive Dimensions of Creolization in Nineteenth-Century Jamaica,” Historical Archaeology 34, no. 3 (2000): 56. Return to text.
  2. Corry Staring-Derks, Jeroen Staring, and Elizabeth N. Anionwu, “Mary Seacole: Global Nurse Extraordinaire” Journal of Advanced Nursing 71, no. 26 (2014): 515. Return to text.
  3. Mary Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1805-1881 (James Blackwood: Paternoster Row, London, 1857), 1. Return to text.
  4. Quoted in Ziggi Alexander, “Let it Lie Upon the Table: The Status of Black Women’s Biography in the UK,” Gender & History 2, no. 1 (1990): 26 Return to text.
  5. Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole, 1. See also Christine Craig, “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands: Autobiography as Literary Genre and a Window to Character,” Caribbean Quarterly 30, no. 2 (1984): 35-36. Return to text.
  6. Ibid., 99. Return to text.
  7. Ian Morris. War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (London: Profile Books, 2014), 220. Return to text.
  8. Alexander, “Let it lie upon the table,” 1990, 16. Return to text.
  9. M. Karamanou, T. Rosenberg, T. Liakakos, and G. Androutsos, “Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (1766-1842): Founder of Military Surgery and Trauma Care,” Istoria Medicinei, Chirurgia, 106, no. 1 (2011): 10. Return to text.
  10. Alexander, “Let it Lie Upon the Table,” 27. Return to text.
  11. Ibid. Return to text.
  12. Corry Staring-Derks, Jeroen Staring, and Elizabeth N. Anionwu, “Mary Seacole: Global Nurse Extraordinaire,” Journal of Advanced Nursing 71 (2014), 515. Return to text.
  13. Jessica Nelson, “‘Good Education, Good Position, and Good Blood’: Creole Women’s Literature of the Nineteenth-Century British West Indies,” (PhD diss, Northeastern University, 2016), 72. Return to text.
  14. Elizabeth. N. Anionwu, “Mary Seacole: Nursing Care in Many Lands,” British Journal of Healthcare Assistants 6, no. 5 (2012): 247. Return to text.
  15. Ibid. Return to text.
  16. M. Manring, A. Hawk, J.H. Calhoun, and R.C. Andersen, “Treatment of War Wounds: A Historical Review,” Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research no. 467 (2009): 2169. Return to text.
  17. Christopher J. Gill and Gillian C. Gill., “Nightingale in Scutari: Her Legacy Re-examined,” Center for International Health (2005): 1799. Return to text.
  18. Ibid., 1801. Return to text.
  19. Alexander, “Let it Lie upon the Table,” 28. Return to text.
  20. Anionwu, “Mary Seacole,” 244. Return to text.

Peter Sleeth is an academic with the La Trobe University Rural Health School, College of Science, Health and Engineering at the Shepparton Campus in Victoria, Australia. Peter teaches into the Undergraduate Degree programs of Health Science, Humanities and Nursing. His research interests include; Military History, Sociology and the History of Medicine.