Remembering an icon: Mary Seacole


The strands which define greatness can often be difficult to pin down, but the legacy which follows Mary Seacole offers a resounding indication of the significance of her life’s work - this hasn't always been the case though. Today marks 140 years since she passed away in her home in Paddington but it is also a timely opportunity to remember her life.

Reminders that her work was for a long time relegated to obscurity is never far from conversation. Even her return to mainstream acclaim hasn’t stopped attempts to displace her from the national curriculum, but as has been explained on this very website long ago, her story and what it represents is that much more important than the persistence of her detractors.

Seacole’s story is much more than about the Crimean war where she made her name. It is a story of endeavour, great bravery, but perhaps above all it is  about how an ordinary woman, with no privilege, and no support from the nation she served, became so revered by the army class she administered and the British public.

Lord Simon Woolley, 2013, Michael Gove dumps Mary Seacole

She was born in 1805 to her father, a Scottish Lieutenant in the British Army, and her mother, a practitioner of traditional Jamaican medicine. The work of Mary’s mother is especially crucial to her story. It was from here that Mary’s interest in medicine developed, soon gaining a reputation of her own as a ‘skilful nurse and doctress’. In her biography she would later write:

“It was very natural that I should inherit her tastes; and so, I had from early youth a yearning for medical knowledge and practice which never deserted me…. And I was very young when I began to make use of the little knowledge I had acquired from watching my mother, upon great sufferer – my doll… and whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll soon contracted it.”

Her pechant for travel is well documented, as are her heroic efforts in treating victims of the Kingston cholera epidemic in 1850. She did similar in Panama, attending to those suffering from tropical diseases such as yellow fever.

However, ‘Mother Seacole’ as she was affectionately known, is most highly acclaimed for her deeds during the Crimean War. It was here that her medical abilities and sense of initiative were most clearly recognised. She set up the ‘British Hotel’, described as a, “mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”. 

Word of her courage was acknowledged by The Times. An old expert explains what her contribution had meant to so many: “…Mrs. Seacole…doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battlefield to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings.”

As we stated at the outset, her long absence from mainstream history is a recurring theme when considering her legacy. Nonetheless, recent efforts have had an effect. In addition to the work of several campaigners and the Mary Seacole Trust, the erection of statues, recognition by honours, and a visible footprint in the education system have all been consequential.

The commemoration of her medical and entrepreneurial accomplishments will ensure that her life’s work is not forgotten by future generations. 140 years later, her qualities of selflessness, courage, and determination, mean she will be remembered fondly by Britons for many years to come.

Mayowa Ayodele


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