Biography of Mary Seacole, Nurse and War Hero

Lost Portrait Of Mary Seacole Unveiled At National Portrait Gallery
Portrait of Mary Seacole by London artist Albert Challen dated 1869.

Bruno Vincent / Getty Images

A nurse, businesswoman, and war hero, Mary Seacole was born in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Scottish father and Jamaican mother. Her exact birthdate is unknown, but her life would be celebrated around the world thanks to her efforts to treat wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War.

Fast Facts: Mary Seacole

  • Also Known As: Mary Jane Grant (maiden name)
  • Born: 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica
  • Died: May 14, 1881 in London, England
  • Parents: James Grant, mother’s name unknown
  • Spouse: Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole
  • Key Accomplishments: Opened a boarding house for convalescent soldiers during the Crimean War; wrote a memoir about her efforts.
  • Famous Quote: “My first experience of battle was pleasant enough (...) I felt that strange excitement which I do not remember on future occasions, coupled with an earnest longing to see more of warfare, and to share in its hazards.”

Early Years

Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant to a Scottish soldier father and a nurse-entrepreneur mother. Seacole’s mother, whose name is not known, has been described as Creole of African and English descent. Due to their different racial backgrounds, her parents could not marry, but Seacole’s mother was more than the “Creole mistress” some historians have labeled her. Described as a "doctress," a reference to her knowledge of herbal medicine, Seacole’s mother excelled as both a healer and a business owner. She ran a boarding house for ailing soldiers, and her health expertise and business acumen would influence Mary Seacole to pursue the same path. Meanwhile, the military background of Seacole's father likely gave her compassion for servicemen.

The cultural heritage of her parents also influenced Seacole’s nursing; it prompted her to merge the African folk medicine expertise she learned from her mother with the Western medicine of her father’s native Europe. Extensive traveling helped Seacole to acquire this knowledge. When she was just a teenager, she boarded a merchant ship to London. By her 20s, she expanded her travels, using pickles and preserves as currency. She visited a number of different countries, including the Bahamas, Haiti, Cuba, and Central America, in addition to Great Britain. 

Mary Seacole
Only known photograph of Mary Seacole (1805-1881), taken c.1873 by Maull & Company in London by an unknown photographer. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

After making numerous trips abroad, she married an Englishman named Edwin Seacole in 1836, when she would have been about 31 years old. Her husband died eight years later, making her a relatively young widow. After his death, Seacole resumed her travels, opening a hotel in Panama, along the route many fortune hunters took to California during the Gold Rush. A cholera outbreak there piqued her curiosity and she inspected the corpse of one of its casualties to learn more about this gruesome medical condition, a bacterial disease of the small intestine that’s typically acquired from contaminated water.

The Crimean War

The year 1853 marked the start of the Crimean War, a military conflict over the status of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, which included the Holy Land. During the war, which lasted until 1856, Turkey, Britain, France, and Sardinia formed an alliance to defeat the Russian Empire’s efforts to expand into this territory. In 1854, Seacole visited England, where she asked the War Office to fund a trip for her to go to Crimea. The territory lacked quality facilities for injured soldiers, so she wanted to travel there to give them the care she felt they deserved, but the War Office refused her request.

The decision surprised Seacole who had both a background in nursing and extensive travel experience. Determined to give Britain’s injured warriors the medical attention they needed, she managed to find a business partner willing to finance her trip to Crimea to open a hotel for the wounded. Once there, she opened the British Hotel in the region between Balaclava and Sebastopol. 

Unafraid and adventurous, Seacole didn’t just admit soldiers to her boarding house but treated them on the battlefield as gunfire rang out. Both the care she gave soldiers and her presence on the battlefield earned her the moniker “Mother Seacole.” Her courage and devotion to her charges have drawn comparisons to Florence Nightingale, the British nurse who trained other women to care for the soldiers hurt during the Crimean War. Nightingale is considered the founder of modern nursing.

Mary Seacole
Mary Seacole was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991 and in 2004 she was voted the greatest Black Briton. This is a contemporary painting.  Print Collector / Getty Images

Return Home

When the Crimean War ended, Mary Seacole headed back to England with little money and in fragile health. Fortunately, the news media wrote about her predicament, and Seacole’s supporters organized a benefit for the nurse who had so bravely served Britain. Thousands of people attended the festival fundraiser that took place in her honor in July 1857. 

Given vital financial support, Seacole wrote a book about her experiences in Crimea and other places she’d visited. The book was called “The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.” In the memoir, Seacole revealed the origins of her adventurous nature. "All my life long, I have followed the impulse which led me to be up and doing,” she explained, “and so far from resting idle anywhere, I have never wanted inclination to rove, nor will powerful enough to find a way to carry out my wishes." The book became a bestseller.

Death and Legacy

Seacole died May 14, 1881, at the age of about 76. She was mourned from Jamaica to England, including by members of the British Royal Family. In the years after her death, however, the public largely forgot about her. That has begun to change as campaigns to recognize the contributions of black Britons to the United Kingdom have thrust her back into the spotlight. She ranked first in the 100 Great Black Britons poll that debuted in 2004, and the National Portrait Gallery displayed an undiscovered painting of her in 2005. That year, the biography “Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea” was released. The book has only garnered more attention for the courageous mixed-race nurse and hotelier.   

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