[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Sasha Turner writes about one of my favorite historical figures, Mary Seacole,* for the blog series “Disease and Epidemics in Caribbean Societies” hosted by the University of the West Indies Museum (UWI Museum). This post offers a view of Seacole’s work as a nurse, with special attention to her treatments during the cholera outbreaks of the 19th century.
Entrepreneur, writer, health practitioner, & traveler, Mrs. Mary Seacole’s (1805 – 1881) identity as health practitioner is very often disputed among historians of medicine. Scholarly and popular constructions of Mary Seacole depict her as Florence Nightingale’s rival; some rejecting Seacole as valid comparison to Nightingale because “it is questionable [whether Seacole’s] accomplishments match those of Florence Nightingale.” Sociologist Lynn McDonald asserts that Seacole was not a nurse because Seacole herself, in her autobiography, did not claim she was a nurse. In pale contrast to Nightingale’s publication of “sixteen substantial volumes,” including her “famous Notes on Nursing: What It is And What It Is Not, Seacole never published more than her memoir that offers scant details on nursing. Yet, questions of Seacole’s nursing accomplishments rivaling Nightingale are moot because Seacole liberated herself from the feminized straitjacket Nightingale imposed in disciplining nursing. Seacole’s life as a global traveler, entrepreneur, and healer who neither swooned easily nor blushed in the company of men was way out of step with the demurred, virtuous, and charitable image being nurtured of the modern nurse. Travelling and trading a variety of services, not limited to healing, between Jamaica, Central America, and the Crimea Seacole was interested neither in disciplining nursing nor disciplining her body, practice, and self to conform to the (feminized) boundaries of Nightingale and others.
Colonial Jamaica’s social and legal restrictions on black and brown people practicing medicine did not prevent Seacole working as a healer. In addition to providing simple cures for treating everyday illnesses from her home/business in Kingston, Seacole was on the front lines of Jamaica’s 1850 Cholera outbreak. When British War Office officials, including Nightingale, rejected her application to serve in the nursing corps during the Crimean War, Seacole raised her own funds to support her travel and work. Seacole did not adjust her (problematized) identity to fit into unaccommodating spaces; she inhabited and redrew the spaces by means of her own making.
Had Seacole been accepted for Nightingale’s cadre, she likely would have resisted its confining boundaries. Seacole cultivated her subject status and expertise; but despite putting to work her healing and entrepreneurial skills she remained materially impoverished and her healing skills stifled. British officials’ rejection of Seacole joining the nurse corps and Jamaican authority’s prohibition on her medical practice alienated her from institutionalized medicine.
Like most nineteenth century doctors, Seacole’s remedies, including her treatments for Cholera, were not always successful. In her autobiography, Seacole noted with frustration how she “varied” treatments, continuously altering them based on observations of her patients. Denied membership in the exclusive clubs of white men physician practice and white women nurse practice, Seacole toiled with limited collegial and institutional support necessary for medical breakthroughs. The fight for Seacole’s recognition as nurse pioneer has been long and difficult and remains challenged by some because her “informal” contributions as nurse did not quite match the “institutional efforts of Nightingale.”
Undeterred by the stumbling blocks imposed by colonial and formal medicine’s authority, Seacole built bridges and community by lending her expertise. Bridging the gap between the institution and the individual requires dismantling modern medicine as an institution of hierarchies and exclusivity, recasting it as a fluid space for generating knowledge that sustains us all. True to her African roots, Seacole is an exemplar of the African proverb, “the wise build bridges, the foolish builds dams.”
Sasha Turner is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). Dr. Turner is a UWI & Mary Seacole Hall Alum. Connect with her on twitter @drsashaturner.
[Painting above: Mary Seacole by Albert Charles Challen (oil on panel, 1869, NPG 6856 © National Portrait Gallery, London.)]
*For older articles focusing on Seacole, see my book chapters “Women Adrift: Madwomen, Matriarchs, and the Caribbean” (Women at Sea: Travel Writing and the Margins of Caribbean Discourse, eds. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Ivette Romero-Cesareo, 2001) and “Travelers possessed: Generic hybrids and the Caribbean” (Between anthropology and literature: Interdisciplinary discourse, ed. Rose De Angelis, 2002); also see Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s “Mrs. Mary Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands and the Consciousness of Transit” (Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, ed. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, 2003).