Mary’s mother was black Jamaican and her father Scottish. She ran a boarding house for British soldiers in Kingston, Jamaica. Mary learned from her mother the arts of Creole herbal medicine. She helped fight both the cholera and yellow fever epidemics that hit Jamaica in 1850 and 1853.
In 1836 Mary married a British officer, Edwin Seacole, but he died after only eight years of marriage. Mary loved to travel and she visited other Caribbean islands, Central America and Britain. She learned about European medicine on her trips and combined this knowledge with the traditional healing skills she had learned from her mother.
In 1854 Mary travelled to England again. She wanted to volunteer as an army nurse in the Crimea. She was rejected four times by the war office and by Florence Nightingale's assistant. Was it possible, she asked herself, “that these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?” She did not give up. She paid for her own passage to the Crimea and set up the British Hotel near Balaclava to provide “a mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent British officers”. Medicines were dispensed and sometimes entertainment put on for the soldiers. They called her “Mother Seacole”.
She would put on her bonnet, ride her donkey out on the battlefield and nurse the wounded soldiers.
After the war Mary returned to England, suffering from illness and poverty. The newspapers told her story. The Times correspondent, William H Russell, had been in the Crimea. He wrote: “I have witnessed her devotion and her courage…and I trust that England will never forget one who has nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.” Money was raised for her at a great military festival over four nights. Thousands came to honour Mary and to see the fireworks, including lords, military commanders and many artists. Even Queen Victoria sent a contribution to the funds. Mary was awarded three medals which she wore proudly on her traditional Jamaican-style dress. In 1857 Mary wrote the story of her life: "Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands" and it sold well. She returned to Jamaica for several years, but died back at her home in Paddington, London.
Mary Seacole was not from a wealthy middle-class family and had no formal medical training like Florence Nightingale. She struggled against the rules which prevented women making their own decisions and against the prejudice that stopped black people following a nursing career. Her name was almost forgotten, but now 200 years after her birth, Mary Seacole is recognised as a heroine of the Crimean War and a pioneer of the nursing profession.