Tribute to Mary Seacole

18 September 2020

A look at the life and legacy of the heroic nurse who bravely helped soldiers during the Crimean War, and still inspires others.

September is usually when the Mary Seacole awards take place. Set up in 2004 in honour of Mary’s achievements, they recognise outstanding individuals in the healthcare sector whose projects have made a real difference in the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community. Applications have been deferred slightly due to Covid-19, but the awards will continue, as will the legacy of Mary herself.

A clear vision

Mary Jane Grant was born in Kingston, Jamaica, more than 200 years ago. It was during the time when many black people in the Caribbean were forced into slavery. Her mother was black, while her father was a white Scottish army officer, and Mary was born a ‘free person’.

Mary loved to help others, and had an interest in medicine and nursing from a young age. Her mother was a healer and taught her about traditional Jamaican treatments and remedies.

At just 12, Mary helped her mother run a boarding house in Kingston, where many of the guests were sick or injured soldiers. Mary also developed a love for travel, and on a long visit to England at 15 she gained knowledge about modern European medicine.

She became Mary Seacole after she married Englishman Edwin in 1836. Sadly, he fell ill and died eight years later, an event which was closely followed by the death of her mother. Mary then focused on nursing – in 1850, she cared for victims of the Kingston cholera epidemic, and in 1851 helped those suffering in Panama. In 1853, she returned to Kingston to nurse victims of a yellow fever epidemic. In 1853, the Crimean War began, and Mary travelled to England to ask the British War Office if she could be sent to the Crimea as an army nurse.

They said no, but refusing to give up, she funded her own trip. There she established a ‘hotel’ with a friend, helping sick and recovering soldiers. She also looked after those wounded on the battlefield and was known as ‘Mother Seacole’.

A role model for all

Mary returned unwell and with little money. Soldiers praised her in the press, and her kindness was returned with a fund-raising gala. She then wrote an autobiography.

Yet after her death in 1881, she was lost to history for around 100 years. Her legacy is more secure today – she was voted the greatest black Briton in 2004, and a statue was erected in London in 2016.

Today the Mary Seacole Trust works to protect her legacy and inspire others. After the Black Lives Matter protests began, the trust’s CEO said: ‘What would Mary do today? I think she would listen, speak up when she saw things that were wrong, and encourage people to make their protests passionately and peacefully. And she would never give up in the fight for fairness and equality.’ 


Picture Credit | Alamy

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