Almost everyone has heard of Florence Nightingale, but the Crimean War produced another nurse worthy of note. The mixed race daughter of a Scottish soldier and a traditional native healer, Mary Jane Seacole (née Grant) was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. She shared her mother’s interest in medicine, but also liked travel, and combined her mother’s teachings with medical knowledge she picked up in other countries.
In 1854, she went to the War Office to offer her services as a nurse in the Crimea. When they turned her down (along with several other lower class or otherwise ‘unsuitable’ applicants), she made the trip herself and set up the British Hotel near Balaclava to tend to the sick and wounded. She also went out to battlefields and obtained special passes that enabled her to minister to soldiers on both sides.
Though failing to gain the same kind of lasting fame as the lady with the lamp, the nurse known as ‘Mother Seacole’ was, nonetheless much appreciated. So much so that, when she returned to England in near penury after the war, a benefit was held to raise money for her, and the fund thus established enabled her to live in comfort for the rest of her days and even pen her memoirs. (The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands).