Monday, 14 May 2012

Nightingale and Seacole: 12 and 14 May

If one bothers to learn any history at all, one often learns it from strange sources.

A favourite of mine is W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s 1066 and all that which sets out to record all the history any Englishman can remember at the age of 40. Its explanation of the causes of the Crimean War is particularly instructive:

  The Holy Places. The French thought that the Holy Places ought to be guarded

  (probably against the Americans) by Latin Monks, while the Turks, who owned
  the Places, thought that they ought to be guarded by Greek Monks. England
  therefore quite rightly declared war on Russia, who immediately occupied

  The war was consequently fought in the Crimea (near Persia).

The Crimean War was where Florence Nightingale made her name. I first became aware of her thanks to another classic in history education, Ladybird Books: with large, brightly coloured pictures and not much text, they provide just the combination of sentimentalism, patriotism and unchallenging entertainment that is so essential to the development of historical perspective in today’s world.

The Ladybird view of the Lady with the Lamp

Aged ten or eleven, I read the story absolutely spellbound. The sufferings of the wounded soldiers and how little was done for them until Nightingale showed up at the military hospital in Scutari. Her habit of walking the wards at night, leading to her earning the title ‘the lady with the lamp’. The recovering soldiers who would apparently try to catch the hem of her dress and kiss it.

It occurs to me that this may be the source of the tradition honoured in so many war films of showing wounded men in hospital behaving reprehensibly towards nurses. Not that it's usually the hem of a dress they want to kiss. 

Nightingale didn’t get everything right at Scutari. It was the stubborn refusal of the mortality rate in the hospital to fall, despite all the care she provided, that brought home to her the importance of protection from infection: the deaths due to poor sanitation taught her to stress the importance of hygiene in nursing.

Overall, her work in the Crimea and the way she built her experience into her later teaching, made of Nightingale one of the central, if not the primary, figure in the launch of nursing as a profession.

All the same, though her record is outstanding, it isn’t unique. That’s why I didn’t publish this post on 12 May, the anniversary of her birth, but on the 14th, which marks another event that deserves a great deal more recognition than it generally gets.

During our recent break in Istanbul, I saw that several of the ferries that ply back and forth across the narrow waterway dividing Europe from Asia were heading for Üsküdari. That, it turns out, is what Nightingale called Scutari. Not exactly the Crimea. In fact, some 395 miles from the British encampment at Balaclava. Four days, at that period, by boat. Yet another source of misery for the wounded soldiers.

Not that the problem escaped Nightingale, who did open a second hospital on the Crimean peninsula, much closer to the fighting.

Meanwhile, another woman, a contemporary of Nightingale’s, had also discovered a vocation for nursing and an understanding of what a key profession it was. She too set up her own nursing operation, and from the outset it was a lot closer to the wounded men than Scutari.

Mary Seacole, who had learned her nursing in the Caribbean and then in Central America, was unable to obtain any kind of funding to take her skills to the soldiers in the Crimea, and was even turned down by Nightingale herself.

Undeterred, she raised whatever funds she could to get herself to the Crimea. There within a mile of the British field headquarters, she set up her ‘British Hotel’ which was, as its name implies, a hotel and a business: Seacole had to raise money as well as care for soldiers. Supported by her hotel, she would travel out daily to treat the wounded just behind the lines. Her critics, including Nightingale, would later accuse her of keeping something little different from a brothel, but she enjoyed a far better reputation among the soldiers, particularly the many she helped.

At the end of the fighting, forced once more to fend for herself, she struggled back to Britain, only to face crushing debts and eventually bankruptcy. Fortunately, she had some powerful admirers who set up a fund to get her out of trouble, to which, to her great credit, Florence Nightingale anonymously contributed.

Seacole ultimately attained a degree of success and comfort, with property in Jamaica and a good life in London, protected by figures from royal, noble and political circles. She died, admired as a pioneer of nursing, on 14 May 1881.

Following her death, her reputation faded for the best part of a century. However, in the last two or three decades a campaign to recognise her contribution has begun to have some notable success. Both in Jamaica and in Britain, numerous institutions associated with nursing now bear her name, and there is an annual Mary Seacole award for excellence in her profession.

Florence Nightingale undoubtedly deserves the reputation she has won, and her contribution to nursing was historical and monumental. And achieving so much as a woman in Victorian England is all the more remarkable.

But on the anniversary of her death, let’s set Mary Seacole up on the pedestal alongside her. An outstanding champion of nursing and a woman, just like Nightingale. But she laboured under other and greater handicaps that explain her greater misfortunes. Seacole was of humble origins. And she was black.

I’m looking forward to the day when little boys get starry-eyed from reading the Ladybird book about her.

Mary Seacole, 1805-14 May 1881
Pioneer of Nursing

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