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Women in Science on the Air
Wed January 17, 2007
Her-Story, Then: Mary Seacole
1805-1881 – FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE REFUSED TO LET THIS CARIBBEAN NURSE SERVE IN THE CRIMEAN WAR BECAUSE OF THE COLOR OF HER SKIN. BUT THE WOMAN WHO CALLED HERSELF A 'VERY HUMBLE ACTOR' FOUND A WAY TO SERVE ANYWAY. AND THE BRITISH ROYAL FAMILY WELCOMED HER INTO THEIR HOME.
Mary Seacole first practiced medicine on her dolls. Then on dogs and cats. And then on the officers at the local army camp. Born in 1805 in Jamaica to a free black doctress and a Scottish army officer, Mary learned Creole medicine at her mother's side. But a taste for adventure took her far from home. In 1850 she single-handedly dealt with the cholera epidemic in Panama. Grateful white Americans offered to have her yeller skin bleached, to make her more acceptable. Seacole declined. Back in Jamaica she became supervisor of nursing at the British Army base.
News of the Crimean War brought Seacole to England in 1854 to volunteer as a nurse. But she was turned away because of her race. Stranded, her hopes dashed, and skills wasted, Seacole spent a year raising money to finance her own way to the battlefield. When she reached Turkey, the 50 year old Seacole appealed directly to Florence Nightingale, but was rejected again. Determined to help, Seacole remained at the front. She provided nursing care and accommodations for wounded soldiers who dubbed her The Mother of the Army . By war's end she was bankrupt. But the British nation was grateful. The London media threw a 4 day military gala in her honor. 80,000 people attended! And the Princess of Wales later hired Seacole to be her personal masseuse.
She died in England at the age of 76. As years went by, knowledge of her life and service faded. But during her lifetime Seacole reminded people that, very humble actors can be of very great use .
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HER-STORY: THEN & NOW was made possible by support from the National Science Foundation.