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Mary Jane Seacole

From: Jamaica
Fields: Health and Medicine
Mary Jane Seacole was a Jamaican nurse and a heroine of the Crimean War. She was born Mary Grant in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish military officer and her mother a Jamaican mulatto. Mary's mother was also a healer and ran a boardinghouse for the recuperating officers.

In 1836, Mary married Edward Seacole. Together they traveled around the Caribbean and Central America, but her husband died shortly afterwards and Mary returned to Kingston where she took over the running of the boardinghouse after her mother's death.

Mary was well educated and she was a skilled nurse. When the Crimean War broke out, she traveled to London and applied to go to Crimea to tend to the wounded soldiers but she was not granted an interview by the British War Office. She then applied to Elizabeth Herbert, the wife of the secretary of state for war who was recruiting nurses for the war effort, but was again denied an interview and after some time received a letter of rejection. Britain, apparently, was not ready to welcome a black nurse.

Undaunted, Mary went on her own initiative and in 1856 established the British Hotel near Balaclava at her own expense in order to provide "a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers". She often went to the battlefield to attend to the wounded there. After the war, Mary Seacole was bankrupt, but her story was carried by the British press and money was raised by subscriptions to pay off her debts.

In 1857, she published The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. The book was a great success and Mary Seacole became a popular figure. She spend the rest of her life traveling and working between London and Kingston. She was awarded the Crimean Medal, the French Legion of Honour and a Turkish medal. Mary Seacole died in 1881.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1998.

1. Larousse Dictionary of Women, edited by Melanie Parry, Larousse, 1996
2. Women Healers: Portraits of Herbalists, Physicians, and Midwives by Elisabeth Brooke, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont, 1995
3. Women's World: A Timeline of Women in History by Irene M. Franck and David M. Brownstone, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995


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