Time we truly celebrate the 'Nightingale of Jamaica'

Time we truly celebrate the 'Nightingale of Jamaica'


Thursday, May 16, 2019

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May 12 is celebrated as International Nurses' Day. Generally, the day is so celebrated because it is Florence Nightingale's birthday. Inasmuch as it is a good gesture, at this time of year I do get a bit perplexed as I reflect on the life of our own Mary Seacole, who was affectionately named the “Nightingale of Jamaica” by Crimean soldiers. She was so named because of her stellar contribution to health care during the Crimean war.

Is Mary Seacole a nurse?

Mary Seacole was born on November 23, 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier and her mother a free black Jamaican woman. Seacole attributed her love for nursing and the caring profession to her mother, who owned a hotel and was a traditional healer or doctress. Her mother had a reputation of ministering care to sick sailors and soldiers from Up Park Camp and Newcastle who visited the hotel.

Seacole's interest for healing and caring for the sick was sparked from as early as 12 years old. This was strengthened by her trip to England, where she had a nurse as her travelling companion. Of note is that Mary Seacole rose to fame in nursing in 1850 because of her work during the cholera outbreak (Swaby, 2005). Her proficiency and expertise did not go unnoticed, as on her return to Jamaica she was called to the headquarters of the British Army at Up Park Camp in Kingston to oversee their nursing services in 1853.

One can safely conclude that since Seacole had no formal training, she was self-taught. She garnered her skills through 'on-the-job training', mostly observing her mother, the traditional healer. This was not uncommon during her era since there were no formal systems in place in Jamaica for nurses training.

Seacole, while in London in 1854, learned of the hardships for soldiers in the Crimean War and made good of the opportunity to assist. She went to the Crimea, amidst controversy, and assisted at the military hospitals and distributed remedies for cholera and dysentery.

Hailed by Cubans as the “Yellow woman with the cholera medicine”, as “the Nightingale of Jamaica” by the Crimean soldiers, and the “Angel of mercy” by the Americans, Seacole was revered for the proficient and unbiased care she provided.

Seacole died in May 1881.

When will we celebrate Mary Seacole's birthday?

Is Mary Seacole being celebrated sufficiently?

Mary Seacole is yet to be accorded the recognition she deserves. A case in point was, in 1915, a Crimean War Memorial was erected in Central London and included a statue of Florence Nightingale, but not of Seacole.

Locally, Mary Seacole has been recognised as one of the greatest contributors to the profession of nursing and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1991. To further perpetuate her name and work, notable structures now bear her name. For example, the Nurses Association of Jamaica headquarters at 72 Arnold Road is named The Mary Seacole House, there is a Mary Seacole Ward at the Kingston Public Hospital, and the Mary Seacole Hall at The University of the West Indies. There is also a bust of Seacole at the Institute of Jamaica and at the headquarters of the Nurses Association of Jamaica.

In the United Kingdom, Seacole is immortalised through statues, plaques and paintings, commemorative ceremonies, inter alia. Among the accolades are:

1. In 1871 Queen Victoria commissioned a sculpture of Mary. A bust was created by her nephew, Prince Victor.

2. She was awarded the Crimean War Medal.

3. She was awarded the French Legion of Honour.

4. A memorial service was held in her honour on May 14, 1981, 100 years after her death, by the Mary Seacole Foundation. It is celebrated annually.

5. A new edition of her popular book The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands was published in 1984 (first published in 1857).

6. In 2003 there was a campaign to get a statue of Mary Seacole erected in Central London.

7. In 2004 Mary Seacole was voted the most important person in black British history in the 100 Great Black Britons award.

8. A blue plaque to honour her memory can be found at her last place of residence in London, England (Royal College of Nursing [RCN], 2018).

Mary Seacole was admired by many. One British journalist, Times correspondent William Howard Russell, in talking about Seacole, said: “A more tender and skilful hand about a wound or broken limb could not be found among our best surgeons.”

Equally, in the preface of The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, Russell wrote: “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded, to aid and succor them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.” (1857)

Mary Seacole was also cited as a “Jamaican/Scottish nurse and businesswoman, celebrated for her bravery in nursing soldiers during the Crimean War (1853–56), and was admired for her use of Creole herbal remedies to relieve the symptoms of infectious illnesses, such as cholera in Jamaica and Panama”. (RCN, 2018)

The Royal College of Nursing, United Kingdom, also celebrates the work of Seacole through the Mary Seacole Awards (in development and leadership). According to the website of the RCN, “These awards recognise and honour the name of Mary Seacole for her work in the Republic of Crimea.” The RCN also boasts a publication entitled A Short History of Mary Seacole: A Resource for Nurses and Students. There is also a Mary Seacole Research Centre and Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice at Thames Valley University London (RCN, 2018).

Mary Seacole Housing Association of Luton, United Kingdom, is also a means of perpetuating the legacy of Mary Seacole – Mary Seacole Housing Association Limited, a friendly society with charitable status, was established in 1986. It provides supported accommodation in six hostels in the Luton area for young, single, homeless people aged between 16 and 35 years. Over the years the association has built a reputation of being one of the foremost in this field.

One will agree that Mary Seacole was a phenomenal nurse, one deserving of the accolades mentioned above. Nonetheless, I am still of the opinion that much more can be done to recognise her on an annual basis.

Despite the lack of structured and formal nursing training, and the lack of an organised health system during the British colonial system in Jamaica, one can safely conclude that Mary Seacole was a nurse. Noteworthy, is that Seacole unlocked the door for individuals of mixed ancestry to enter the profession of nursing.

All things considered, I recommend that the Nurses Association of Jamaica, the nursing community in Jamaica, and the country as a whole engage the necessary mechanisms to ensure that steps be taken to celebrate and recognise, within the mainstream, the life and work of Mary Seacole as she was instrumental in the development of the profession of nursing in Jamaica. This recognition may be similar to that accorded to national icons. It is time we celebrate the “Nightingale of Jamaica”. She deserves it.

Adella Campbell, PhD, JP, is an associate professor and head of the Caribbean School of Nursing at the University of Technology, Jamaica. She is the author of the recently published The Jamaican Public Health System from the 17th-21st Centuries. Send comments to the Observer or adcampbell@utech.edu.jm.

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