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Lots of good material, but the facts wrong on Mary Seacole--teachers and students beware!
on 30 July 2014
This book has excellent coverage of Nightingale’s role in the Crimean War, so that it is unfortunate that, when Mary Seacole is considered, it reveals reliance on faulty sources and myth. There is a vast amount of misinformation in circulation on Seacole, some authored by historians! so that great caution is needed. The book gets pupils to use factual sources from the time, often from newspapers, as a basis for reasoning through issues. Obviously, if the key facts are mistaken, so will the conclusions based on them be. Seacole’s own book contradicts many of the points made in The Experience of Warfare.
Seacole was not a nurse, and her business catered to officers, not soldiers, who could not have afforded her prices--also soldiers and officers did not mix socially. There was no “boarding house for invalid soldiers and sailors” (p 39).
She missed the first three major battles of the war, so that by the time she arrived conditions were improving. Most of her time spent in the Crimea was when there was no fighting going on at all: “my restaurant was always full” she said. Her first aid excursions occurred on precisely three occasions (she described them in her book), hardly regular nursing on the battlefield.
The picture of Seacole shown (p 39) has her wearing 3 medals, but she won none of them. She wore medals, post-Crimea back in London, but in her book never claimed to have won them.
The Experience of Warfare has the timing wrong. Seacole did not go to London to offer her services as a nurse when news about the bad conditions suffered by soldiers came out--she was then in Panama running a business for men going to the California Gold Rush. She went to London from there, to arrive just after the Battle of the Alma (she says this in her book), which was on September 20 1854. Her purpose in going was to look after her failing gold stocks. Only after the sinking of a crucial supply ship, on November 13-14, did she decide to give up on the gold stocks and seek to go to the war as a nurse. News of this disaster did not make it into British newspapers until November 30. Nightingale and her team had already left and the second group was about to leave. So, even if Seacole had started applying immediately, she was too late. Her application, moreover, was informal, dropping in on government offices. She suspected that race was a factor--she had met very racist American Southerners--but her point was qualified. She thought she would not have got a job even if there had been places, perhaps acknowledging that there were none, as even the second team had left.
Moreover, the statement “Mary offered her nursing services to the British authorities” fails to mention that she never submitted the required written applications (they are at the National Archives, Kew). Nor had she had any hospital experience, a requirement. A brief training period was provided to applicants without it--but Seacole was too late even for that. Why should she not have paid for her own passage? By the time she went her purpose was business, and she had a business partner and supplies to start it.
The Timeline is wrong in various places also because of this misconstrual of the process.
Seacole did not provide “food and provisions for the troops,” but for officers, for purchase, at high prices--they were luxury items. Three chapters of her book go to what she did for her officer friends, while there is only a short reference to a “canteen for the soldiery.” That she “also ministered to the wounded and dying on the battlefield” is correct, but it was only 3 times. So the book is wrong that (p 42) that “she was there at the front line of all the major battles (except that she was too late for the Alma).” She missed not only the Alma, but Balaclava and Inkermann, and the terrible first winter of the siege, when so many died.
Perhaps her greatest kindness was in giving tea and cake to soldiers waiting transport to the general hospitals, which this book correctly notes. This she did while waiting to get her business ready to open.
How is Seacole a “maverick nurse,” giving a “different kind of service” from Nightingale? Seacole was a kind businesswoman, never a nurse. Her “doctress” skills were appreciated, but it must be realized that she used lead acetate and mercury chloride in her “remedies,” and admitted to “lamentable blunders” (her words). “Maverick nurse”? No, she was, in effect, practising medicine without a licence, diagnosing and administering drugs, some of them toxic. The book’s section on Seacole is almost as long as that on Nightingale, but it fails to mention anything about her “blunders” and greatly exaggerates her contribution.
There is much good material on Nightingale in the book, but also that is simply unreliable. Hugh Small is called a “historian” (pp 36 and 51) but he is a retired management consultant. His Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel gives his opinion that she was responsible for the high death rates in the war, and falsely states that the death rate was highest at her hospital (p 35). For a thorough refutation, with actual statistics!!! see Lynn McDonald, “Florence Nightingale, Statistics and the Crimean War.” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A 177 (2014):456-86; online 7 October 2013. The highest death rate was at Koulali, run by the Irish Sisters of Mercy, and not Nightingale, but that was undoubtedly because that hospital had the worst sanitary conditions--no fault of the nuns.
The Experience of Warfare disappoints also in omitting Nightingale’s important work after the war. It discusses the McNeill-Tulloch report and later army reforms, but not the Royal Commission on the war, which she helped to get started, and to which she gave superb, written evidence, or her massive report, 853 pages, of what went wrong, with recommendations for reform. Many of these were implemented over the years--she and her team actively promoted them. The book relates the significance of the Sanitary Commission’s work, but not Nightingale’s productive collaboration with its head, Dr John Sutherland, after the war, which led to so many reforms.
The Timeline on p 47 omits mention of the publication of the reports of the Sanitary Commission and the Royal Commission, Nightingale’s great analysis, and her highly influential Notes on Hospitals, which fuelled hospital reform worldwide.