Mary Seacole: A Scientist by Nature

In October, as part of Black History Month in the UK, we ran a competition asking students to submit blog posts showcasing the contribution of scientists of African and Caribbean descent to the scientific world. In the run-up to February’s Black History Month in North America, we are delighted to share the winning blog by Cerys Francis-Garside, Stage 1 Master of Dietetics student.

Mary Seacole: A Scientist by Nature

Perhaps on first hearing her name, you would not choose to label her a scientist. Perhaps you might think “Oh I’ve heard of her… who is she again?”. To me, the story of Mary Seacole is one of the most important in science as it is one we can continue to learn from again and again.

When I was about 8 years old I was given an assignment to complete about Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Lamp. It is true that the effect that Nightingale had on modern nursing could not go unrecognised, particularly her work in sanitation. In fact, to this day we still recognise her importance by naming conference centres-turned-hospitals “Nightingales”. Furthermore, I do not wish to make it a habit to bring one woman down in order to build another up, but in this case, there is more to the story than my primary school curriculum covered.

Mary Jane Seacole

In Victorian England, a biracial black woman enters the scene. Half Scottish, half Jamaican; a time of desperation would be required to allow Seacole to fulfil her aim for which she travelled across the world. I would have thought that the Crimean War would have been enough, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Seacole was turned away. Although historians can only speculate, it was not so cut and dry as solely being an issue of skin colour; in contrary to popular assumption, black people did live in Victorian London. Seacole was turned away for having received no British Nursing training and it is here that I would like to draw the first parallel to the 21st century, as this distinction did not mean that Seacole was unqualified.

Sketch of Mary Seacole by William Simpson, c. 1855

In Jamaica, her mother – a free woman – had taught her an invaluable trade. Like many doctresses in the West Indies, she had excellent knowledge of diseases, herbal remedies, midwifery, and nursing; much of which had been learnt whilst nursing the injuries of fellow slaves. Importantly, in Seacole’s own autobiography, she stated how in the late 1700s these Jamaican doctresses were already practicing a high standard of hygiene.

Seacole’s father was a lieutenant in the British Army, and this link made it possible for her to spend time observing military doctors healing soldiers recovering from prevalent diseases at the time. A reflection of biracial privilege perhaps? The military had a large presence in the West Indies at the time, and a lack of preparation for tropical diseases led them to Seacole’s door. She was also on the front lines of the cholera epidemic in 1850s Jamaica, and again in Panama in 1851, where she successfully treated the first person to fall ill from the disease. So here we have a highly qualified, educated, empathetic nurse, but a widowed woman, yes “only a little brown” [1] by her own admission, and not British by training.

In case I have focused too much on the side of her empathy, in writing this piece I have made the claim that Seacole was a scientist. During the Panama cholera outbreak, Seacole personally performed autopsies; studying, hypothesising and drawing conclusions from each patient she treated. She completed minor surgeries and avoided the use of opiates and lead(II) acetate (now known to be toxic), instead proposing alternative remedies in their place with mixed success which she would later reflect on. I hope this is enough to convince you.

The Start of the Crimean War

With decades of experience under her belt, the Crimean war began. Hundreds of soldiers were dying from cholera, many in cramped, unsanitary hospitals. As previously mentioned, Seacole was laughed away from joining the nurses going to Crimea. It is hard to imagine that the colour of her skin played no part in this, as the death rate of soldiers soared from a variety of complications.

As each route Seacole attempted to take to Crimea was blocked by prejudice of some description, we find ourselves back with Florence Nightingale. I would not be able to explain Nightingale’s issues with Seacole better than she did herself:

“I had the greatest difficulty in repelling Mrs Seacole’s advances, and in preventing association between her and my nurses (absolutely out of the question!)… Anyone who employs Mrs Seacole will introduce much kindness – also much drunkenness and improper conduct” [2]

Again, we can only speculate the truth behind her opinion. Nightingale would go on to express gratitude and fond views of Seacole, despite wishing her nurses had no association with her. Eventually, Seacole found passage to the front line, and nursed many soldiers with her knowledge of disease, military injury, nutrition, and empathy.

Seacole’s nursing activities in the Crimean War were downplayed by the satirical magazine Punch in 1857 – vivandière is the French name for “canteen keepers”

Her Legacy

The life of Mary Seacole is one that continues to divide. After her death, she was forgotten for a century. Historians can claim that she only served “tea and lemonade” [3], or that she merely comforted those as they passed away, but I find her legacy far greater.

One American soldier described her as “so many shades removed from being entirely black” [1], which does not only read as an indication of her skin tone, but also a slight to characteristic perceptions of black people. Regarding the issue of colourism, it is likely that Seacole was seen as more acceptable. To this day, mixed race and light-skinned black people continue to be seen as the “moderate” choice in a world where diversity is foremost a buzzword.

Mary Seacole’s experience as a single biracial woman will always be relevant during this current time. Whatever it is that you draw from her story, I hope you do infer something. We are scientists, after all.

Interested in reading more about Mary Seacole? Check out the following sources cited in this blog!

  1. Seacole M. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands: Edited by W. J. S With an Introductory Preface by W. H. Russell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1857.
  2. Chang T-F. Creolizing the White Woman’s Burden: Mary Seacole Playing ‘Mother’ at the Colonial Crossroads between Panama and Crimea. College literature. 2017;44:527-557.
  3. McDonald L. Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth. Toronto: Iguana Books. 2014.

My role as an EDI rep

By Alex Washington, MSci Biomedical Genetics

For a little while now I’ve been looking for ways to help the LGBT+ and disabled communities but was never sure where to go or what I could do. I do still want to find other ways to help, but I found my starting point as an EDI (Equality, Disability, and Inclusivity) representative in the School of Biomedical, Nutritional and Sport Sciences.

How I got the role

I originally applied to be the LGBT+ rep, thinking “well I’m really queer so that’ll work,” but Dr Parry, head of the EDI committee at the time, thought I’d be better suited for the marginalised genders role, seeing as I’m very vocal about being trans. I didn’t have much of a choice when I was 19 going on 12 but I’m still open about it now, when I easily pass as a cis man (not looking quite 20 yet but getting there).

I am also the rep for disabilities, which wasn’t a part of the plan, but I’m very happy how it turned out. I have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and I know that it’s a serious disability, but a lot of times people brush it off and treat it as “not a real mental disability.” Because of this, a lot of the time I’m scared to speak up about it, in fear I won’t be taken seriously.

Me on my 19th vs me on my 20th (I had a cake, birthday bread was more iconic), thanks Puberty 2.0

At our first EDI meeting, it was mentioned our disabilities rep was a final year student, and so we’d have to find a replacement for when she finished university over summer. At that point I volunteered to be a co-rep with her until she left and take over the role afterwards if we didn’t have any other volunteers, and I’m really glad I did so. My fears of not having my ADHD taken seriously are very real, but they never reflected reality while working with the EDI team.

What I did with the role – it’s more than a way to get a free hoodie

Having worked side by side with the Faculty of Medical Sciences since February, I’m happy to say I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far in my time as a rep, as I managed to make positive changes both to school- and university-wide policy, and to specific students dealing with LGBT+ and disability issues. From simple things like ensuring the lecture slides are more accessible to students, to more serious matters like how DSA (Disabled Students’ Allowance) is addressed in placement talks. After an extremely homophobic survey got sent out to students, we even got the university to change how student surveys are approved to be sent out.

Talk to us

From my experiences I can say that the School of Biomedical, Nutritional and Sport Sciences and Faculty of Medical Sciences are happy to support their students, but a lot of times issues can go unnoticed. Being a representative, I can highlight to the staff, at a professional capacity, any issues students bring up to me, and then address them. Once a solution is presented, I haven’t once seen excuses be made to avoid fixing the problem, no matter how big or small it was.

For this reason, I would urge any student that is having an issue adjusting to life at university to speak to either me or one of the other EDI reps – whoever is most suitable – so we can support you and help make the university experience more accessible.

EDI rep contact information can be found on the Biomedical and Biomolecular Sciences Stage 1-4 Community modules on Canvas.