University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

A Hero in Her Own Right

Jamaican-born nurse tended to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War

Academics often refer to Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole (1805-1881) as “the black Florence Nightingale,” but the comparison is inappropriate, according to U of T English professor Sara Salih.

In fact, Nightingale’s organization may have rejected Seacole because of her skin colour, says Salih, who is editing the nurse’s 1857 autobiography. “The comparison makes Seacole sound like an imitation of Florence when, in fact, Nightingale urged her nurses not to consort with this ‘improper woman.’ Nightingale claimed that Seacole served alcohol and encouraged gambling at the ‘hotel’ she established near the battlefront, where she provided meals for officers.”

In Seacole’s autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole, the nurse emphasizes the importance that morality played in her life and that of her establishment. She describes tending to wounded soldiers on the battlefields during the Crimean War.

“She was an incredibly spirited and indomitable woman in her own right,” says Salih of the nurse who is a hero in Jamaica. “I want to present a more objective view of Seacole so she can be better known and taught to today’s students.” Penguin Books will publish Salih’s annotated edition this year.

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