WISW 12: Mary Jane Seacole

Mary Jane Seacole was born in 1805 in Kingston, in the colony Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish Lieutenant in the British Army. Her mother was a free black Jamaican. Her mother ran what was then considered the best hotel in Kingston, known as the Blundell Hall. Her mother was a healer who practiced African herbal and Caribbean traditional medicines. She was a master of folk medicine, with a vast knowledge of tropical diseases. Most of her traditional Creole medicinal skill in treating injuries and ailments came from looking after sick fellow slaves on sugar plantations. At the time, a Jamaican doctress took on the roles of midwife, masseuse, nurse, and herbalist. Mary Jane Seacole grew up practicing nursing at Blundell Hall, learning skills such as good hygiene, ventilation, warmth, hydration, care for the dying, empathy, and rest. Blundell Hall was used for military recovering from cholera and yellow fever. Her family’s close military connections allowed her to learn the practices of military doctors, complementing her expertise in West African remedies. At that time in Jamaica, more than a fourth of pregnancies resulted in neonatal deaths, however, Seacole wrote that she had never lost a mother or child thanks to good hygiene practices and West African remedies. 

One of only two known photographs of Mary Jane Seacole.

Seacole considered herself a Creole, embracing proudly both her Scotts and African heritage. The West Indies at this time consisted of one third of Britain’s foreign trade, economic interests which Britain protected with a massive military presence. Large numbers of these troops fell ill with tropical diseases, providing Seacole and most West Indian nurses with high numbers of patients regularly. Seacole was able to receive an education from an elderly woman whom she spent time living with. She referred to the woman as her “kind patroness”. Her education and successful business helped her achieve a comfortable place in Jamaican society. Seacole visited London many times.  She would bring pickles and preserves to sell. During some visits she had companions but she also traveled on her own, a testament to her strength as an “unprotected” black woman at the time. A woman traveling without a chaperone or sponsor was highly unusual then. She also traveled extensively in the Caribbean islands.  

After the death of her patroness, Mary Seacole continued to nurse alongside her mother, occasionally being sent to assist at the British Army hospital. In 1836 she was married to Edwin Seacole, a merchant. The couple opened a small store, which failed to make a profit. In 1843 there was a fire at Blundell Hall. They dubbed the rebuilt boarding house New Blundell Hall. In 1844, Mary’s husband Edwin died, followed by her mother. After a rapid recovery from these disastrous years, Mary took over managing her mother’s hotel. Mary was proposed to many times in the years that followed, she declined all of the offers. When the cholera epidemic of 1850 broke out, she nursed and saved many patients, That year 32,000 Jamaicans died of cholera. 

Come back next Wednesday to read part two of the story of Mary Jane Seacole’s travels to Central America and London, her role in the Crimean War, her autobiography, and her legacy as a hero and arguably the first nurse practitioner. 

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