Mary Seacole was from Jamaica, the daughter of a Scot and a free black woman. She learned to treat illness with herbs, learning the practice from the African slaves brought to the island. She spent much of her life traveling and learning the native plants and healing practices of cultures. She gathered this knowledge and used it to treat her clients. One of her specialties was treating cholera.
The Crimean War broke out in 1853, involving Turkey, Russia, Britain, and France. Cholera was the true killer of this war, with as many as 18,000 soldiers succumbing to the deadly bacterial infestation. When Mary heard of this, she offered to come and help. The British Army rejected her, probably based on her gender. The media became an important factor, then, reporting this outbreak as a true killer. Due to this pressure, Florence Nightingale was allowed to recruit thirty-nine nurses to assist, despite her minimal experience with the disease. Mary Seacole was one of the applicants, but she was, once again, rejected. Mary wonders aloud in her autobiography that it was due to the color of her skin.
Mary, knowing that she could make a real difference, decided to journey to Crimea to assist the soldiers privately, at her own expense. She met Florence Nightingale there, but was once again snubbed. Mary served the soldiers directly on the battlefield. Contrary to the images that we are taught about Ms. Nightingale, she was based in a hospital, away from the actual fighting. Mary often treated both sides, without bias. She focused not only on medicines, but also on proper nutrition. This was a relatively new concept at the time, despite Hippocrates stating two centuries earlier, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.”
When Mary Seacole returned from the war, she was bankrupt. Once more, the media came to the rescue, and there was a petition to help her by setting up a fund. Queen Victoria was in support of her and thanked her for her service.
While we all admire the efforts made by Florence Nightingale to further the profession of nursing itself, it is important to recognize those nurses and healers who worked creatively and honorably to serve the ill and needy. Our creativity as nurses is one of the hallmarks of what makes the seasoned nurse. Being able to step outside of the limits, while staying within the policies, is one of our greatest assets.
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