The National Portrait Gallery website is seriously flawed and should not be used as a teaching resource until/unless it is corrected. The NPG so far declined to do this. The material echoes the “myth” literature on Seacole, ignoring the account Seacole gave of her own life in her fine book, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, and reports from the time of those who knew her (and Florence Nightingale).
The NPG credits Seacole with “nursing activities during the Crimean War,” but she did not nurse in that war, but ran a business for officers, in effect a restaurant/bar/store/takeaway/catering service.
That she was “rebuffed when she tried to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing sisters” is misleading, since Seacole never submitted a formal application. By the time she began to apply, informally, by dropping into various offices, it was too late to join even the second team of nurses being sent to the war. Why too late? Mrs Seacole went to London NOT to apply to become a nurse, but to look after her failing gold stocks--she had invested while in Panama running a business for men en route to the California Gold Rush, and explains this in her book.
Mrs Seacole’s establishment was an officers’ club, and only in a minor way “a canteen for troops”--whole chapters in her book go to the goods and services available to officers, less than a sentence to the “canteen for the soldiery.”
“Nursing” is a misnomer for the sale of remedies over the counter to relatively healthy walk-ins, which is what Seacole described doing. The one remedy for which she gave specific ingredients, pre-Crimea--she gave no specifics for remedies during the war--contained toxic substances, lead acetate and mercury chloride. The prescribing and administration of toxic substances was hardly, nor is it now, the province of “nurses.”
The “familiar figure” on the battlefield claim is an exaggeration. War correspondent Russell paid tribute to Seacole in one column during the war, and in fundraising for her after the war.
Seacole did have “financial difficulties,” but this was the result of her and her business partner overstocking food and wines, counting on their profitable business to continue: “my restaurant was always full,” as she put it.
It is true that Seacole has been given a place in “black British history,” but it is questionable that she would have wanted such, since she was three quarters white, had a white husband, white business partner and white clientele and did not identify as a black. Like white Jamaicans, she employed blacks. She traveled with two black servants.
There are obvious errors also in the NPG Appendix: Mary Seacole in Focus. Six pictures are shown of her wearing medals, with no explanation that they were not hers.
The Biography has major factual errors. Her mother’s boarding house later hers, did not cater to “British soldiers” (p 4), but officers. Soldiers could not have afforded the prices, did not mix with officers, and stayed in barracks.
Seacole was not “put in charge” of “nursing services for the British miliary headquarters in Jamaica” (p 4). She said she was asked to bring nurses to the camp outside Kingston, but did not--there was nothing she could do for the sufferers, so she returned to her boarding house. See her pp 59-63 for how little she could do on yellow fever.
“She offered herself directly to Florence Nightingale” (p 4) is highly misleading--she offered to work one night at her hospital, en route to starting her business! (The regular nurses did not work nights.) She otherwise asked for a bed for the night, and was given one, although the hospital was terribly crowded. The “rejected again” statement fails to recognize that Seacole never properly applied.
Her “medical work with the soldiers” is another exaggeration--most of her “patients” were healthy walk-ins; her post-battle first aid work occurred on only 3 occasions (18 June, 16 August and 8 September 1855).
“Mary Seacole’s Life in her Own Words” gives extracts, omitting those that acknowledge “lamentable blunders” in her remedies, that her purpose in going to London in 1854 was to attend to her failing gold stocks, and her acceptance of loot stolen by French soldiers.
Chef Alexis Soyer appears on p 9, with no mention of such key facts that it was he who persuaded Seacole not to have a hotel at all, but a restaurant and bar, and his own reports of Seacole’s positive remarks about Nightingale and Nightingale’s positive remarks about her.
The Timeline (p 10-) has exaggerations and unsubstantiated points uncritically accepted, e.g.
1817 “begins nursing,” when she said she learned “doctress” skills from her mother
1853 “nursing yellow fever patients,” although her own account shows she could virtually nothing for them
1854-5 “trying to sign up,” although she never submitted the required application and began late in applying in person
1855 “sets up British Hotel,” which was not a hotel
1860 “returns to Jamaica,” should be 1859
1865 “returns to Britain” because seen as “British sympathizer,” any evidence?
1869, 1871, c1873 pictures of her wearing medals not her own, not mentioned
The Timeline fails to mention her use of toxic substances and her acknowledgment of “lamentable blunders.” She began wearing medals not her own in 1856, again not mentioned.
While Seacole is made into a heroine, there are slurs on Nightingale--although also some complimentary remarks. The NPG misses such important work as her analysis of Crimean War mortality (she was named the first woman fellow of the Royal Statistical Society for it), her getting the Royal Commission on the sanitary state of the army established, her written evidence to it, the publication of her influential Notes on Hospitals, etc. Her Notes on Nursing and founding of the Nightingale School are acknowledged, but not that she sent nursing leaders around the world, mentored many, was a leading hospital reformer, especially of workhouse infirmaries, an opponent of the terrible Poor Law and pioneer advocate of quality health care for all.
The critique of Nightingale for “her unwillingness to allow Seacole to join her nursing” (p 13) only works if Seacole really were a qualified nurse and had actually applied, neither of which are true.
The comparison of Seacole and Nightingale (p 14) has Seacole treating “impoverished soldiers for free” close to the “battlefields,” although she missed the first 3, major, battles of the war, since she was busy in London on her gold stocks. She described giving first aid for free at 3 later battles, after her major work of selling food and drink to spectators (see her own memoir!). For a more adequate comparison of the two women, with a timeline, see www.maryseacole.info/
Key Stage 3 pupils are erroneously told that Nightingale rejected germ theory and her “lack of enthusiasm for women doctors” (p 24). In fact, Nightingale accepted germ theory after the identification of the cholera bacillus; of course germ theory does not appear in her books written prior to the discoveries of Pasteur and Lister.
Nightingale supported the admission of women into medicine and gave assistance to the founding of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s Women’s Hospital in particular. Her priority was establishing nursing as a distinct profession, but then she correctly understood that few women would make it into medicine, and that those who did would have little impact on it (this changed only in the late 20th century).
“Mary Seacole’s medicine chest” omits mention of lead acetate and mercury chloride, which she used, but names innocent herbals and quinine that she never mentioned (p 28).
Finally, the Glossary (p 32) gives another sanitized picture of Seacole, omitting mention of her taking loot and use of toxic substances. Mrs Seacole was no goody-goody--see her memoir. She was a kind, generous and decent person. She gave her time and energy voluntarily as well as running her business. Her memoir is terrific. Her life deserves celebration as it actually was, but she should not be credited with what Florence Nightingale did.
from Lynnmcd, 27 August 2014