Mary Jane Grant was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish army officer and her mother a free creole woman ‘doctress’ who ran Blundell Hall, a boarding house for injured soldiers, caring for and treating them with traditional herbal remedies. Mary watched and helped her mother gradually building her own knowledge and skills in these traditional, probably African in origin, herbal remedies.

She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in November 1836 in Kingston. Seacole was a British merchant from Prittlewell in Essex and apparently a godson of Admiral Nelson, but he was already struggling with ill health and died after just 8 years of marriage. Mary’s mother died around the same time and she responded to these loses by rebuilding her late mother’s boarding house which had been recently lost to a fire and worked tirelessly through the terrible cholera epidemic of 1850 when over 31,000 people lost their lives. At this time here was no established form of nurse training and the training of doctors was fairly rudimentary. Mary worked closely with the doctors and developed her medicinal healing knowledge and skills.

After a while Mary left Jamaica to travel to Cruces in Panama in search of her brother Edward. Whilst she was there, a cholera epidemic broke out and there was a shortage of doctors. Mary again worked tirelessly treating and comforting the sick until the beginning of the Crimean war in 1854. Mary was sure that she had something to offer, she travelled to London and applied to the War Office to be taken on as a hospital nurse. She was rejected but undeterred Mary decided to work independently.

Mary acquired stores of food and medicine and funded her own travel to the Crimea, opening the roughly constructed ‘British Hotel’ in partnership with a ‘speculator’ named Thomas Day, some two miles from Balaclava. The grandly named ’hotel’ offered provisions as well as boarding and she combined running this with visiting the front line where she provided succour to the sick and wounded, a number of whom remembered ‘Mother Seacole’ from their time posted in Jamaica which was part of the British Empire and had a sizeable military presence. Mary was given special permission to enter Sebastopol shortly after it fell.

Mary Seacole was given little recognition by the British authorities and when the war ended abruptly in March 1856 she was left with a large amount of stores – both provisions and medicines – which she was unable to sell or even dispose of – at an equitable price.

Real lives: Mary Seacole – ‘doctress’

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