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Mary Seacole (1805 -1881)

Nursing Pioneer and Heroine of the Crimean War

Born in 1805 British occupied Jamaica, Mary Seacole was born free at a time when many faced the grim reality of enslavement. Mary's father was a Scottish soldier and her mother was a Jamaican"doctress" who ran a boarding house for sick and wounded soldiers. Mary learned the art of healing from her mother and she also developed a love of travel and adventure. She married a merchant named Edwin Seacole in 1836, but he died soon after, leaving her a widow.

The Adventurous Traveller

Mary Seacole's life was marked by extensive travels all on her own - a bold and unusual step, especially for a woman of color at that time. In her early years, she travelled throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and Europe, gaining more knowledge and experience in treating various diseases and ailments.

Mary's travels were not just physical; they represented a journey of breaking barriers and challenging societal norms.

Wartime healer and Businesswoman

Mary Seacole's journey into healthcare began with her early exposure to ancestral Jamaican medicine through her mother. Drawing from this foundation, Seacole went on to refine her skills and knowledge, becoming a nurse and doctress. Her expertise in herbal medicine and holistic care gained her widespread recognition.

When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, it quickly became infamous for its high death rate from disease. The British Army struggled to protect it's soldiers' health. Hearing about this healthcare system collapse,

Soldiers battle during the Crimean War. Russia, ca. 1855

Mary knew her skills would be in demand and she submitted applications to various authorities, including the War Office, the Army Medical Department, and the Secretary of War, seeking permission to travel to the Crimea and provide care for the sick and wounded. Despite her efforts, all of her applications were rejected, even Florence Nightingale's nursing team turned her away. Mary knew it was the color of her skin and not her skills that hindered acceptance of her aid. This did not stop her.

Undeterred, Seacole decided to take matters into her own hands. She funded her own trip to the Crimea, where she and a relative established Seacole & Day — a general store and hotel near the British camp in Crimea. At the age of 50, armed with a substantial stock of medicines, Mary entered the battle zone as a sutler, providing provisions to the troops including food, supplies and medicine. She immediately made her way to the front lines of the war attending to the wounded, often while under fire. Her courage and compassion earned her the name “Mother Seacole”. She became a popular and respected figure among the troops and the officers, and even received medals and honors from France, England, and Turkey.

Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale were both celebrated nurses during the Crimean War, but their stories are not equally remembered. While Nightingale is widely regarded as the founder of modern nursing, Seacole faced racial discrimination and had to overcome many obstacles to provide care for the wounded soldiers. Seacole was a self-taught healer who used her knowledge of Caribbean and European medicine to treat diseases and injuries. Mary Seacole never received the same recognition or support as Florence Nightingale did from the British government or society.

Mary Seacole’s Later Life & Autobiography

After the war ended in 1856, Mary Seacole returned to England in debt and in poor health. She received support from the public and the press, who admired her work and achievements. In 1857, a benefit was held in her honor to raise funds for her, attracting thousands of people. Later that year, she published her autobiography, "Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands", which became a bestseller. It was the first autobiography written by a black woman in Britain, and it gave a vivid account of her life and experiences.

Mary Seacole died in London in 1881, at the age of 75. For a long time, she was forgotten by history, but in recent years, she has been rediscovered and celebrated as a pioneer of nursing and a heroine of the Crimean War. In 2004, she was voted the greatest black Briton in a poll conducted by the black heritage website Every Generation. In 2016, a statue of her was erected outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London, the first statue to honor a black woman in the UK.

Mary Seacole was a remarkable woman who defied the racial and gender prejudices of her time to pursue her passion for healing and helping others. She made significant contributions to healthcare and nursing. She was also a traveller, a businesswoman, and an author, who left a lasting legacy of courage, compassion, and innovation.

Mary Seacole's statue outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London

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