Mary (Grant) Seacole was born in British Colonial Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish lieutenant and her mother ran a successful boarding house. Her mother also practiced traditional Afro-Caribbean medicine and was an accomplished healer. Mary learned these traditional healing skills from her mother. She grew especially proficient in treating cholera, a disease that affected many British soldiers stationed in the Caribbean. In addition to her nursing skills, Mary learned about hotel management from her mother. Both her nursing skills and her hotel management would prove vital to her future.
On a trip to Britain, Mary learned about the dire situation resulting from the lack of adequate nursing care in the Crimean War (1853-56). She applied to serve as a nurse but was denied. She and a partner traveled in 1855 to Crimea to create a general store and hotel near the British encampment. The hotel quickly became a hospital for British soldiers.
Mary would often go to the front line to treat soldiers to great renown. After the war, when she ran into financial difficulties, British officers who had served in the Crimean War organized a multi-day fundraising gala for her that was immensely successful, with over 80,000 attending over four days. She was beloved by all those she treated.
Mary was awarded a medal for her service in the War, but was virtually forgotten after that. We celebrate Florence Nightingale for her service during the Crimean War, but not Mary Seacole. In fact, Florence Nightingale’s efforts were located hundreds of miles from the front line, while Mary was at the scene of the fighting.
Just imagine the hidden heroes who go unrecognized because of their race or their lack of formal credentials. Mary faced racial discrimination and diminished opportunities due to her lack of credentials for nursing. In fact, schools for nursing did not exist until after the Crimean War. Mary has more recently gained recognition due in large part to biographers exploring the societal contributions of people of color. Mary is thought of today as the first nurse practitioner. Just imagine if we recognized hidden heroes in their time.
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“The grateful words and smiles which rewarded me for binding up a wound or giving a cooling drink was a pleasure worth risking life for at any time.”–Mary Seacole
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.