Even the great Florence Nightingale has fallen victim to political correctness — writes Lynn McDonald
For the file on the new Pseudo-History
By Dr. Lynn McDonald
FLORENCE Nightingale (1820-1910) has not quite been “cancelled” as the Founder of Modern Nursing. Her reputation is still very much alive and appreciated in most of the world and she has a decided following among statisticians and healthcare experts everywhere. However, for British nurses at least, she now appears as one of a “pair” of “co-founders” of the profession, with a so-called “black nurse.”
A basic flaw in this reimagining is that her supposed co-founder, Mary Seacole (1805-82) was not a nurse, never claimed to be one, and self-identified instead as the “yellow doctress” or “brunette,” a fair-skinned Creole skilled in herbal remedies and food and beverage services. That much is perfectly clear in Seacole’s delightful memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857), wherein she herself reserved the term “nurse” for Nightingale and her nurses and nursing sisters in the Crimean War, which was fought between 1854 and 1856.
Mary Seacole was a prosperous mixed-race Jamaican, three-quarters white, with a white father, white husband, white business partner, and white clientele. Like property-owning white Jamaicans, she employed blacks. She travelled with a black maid, also named Mary, and a black porter, Mac. In her business near Balaclava she employed, as she writes, two “good-for-nothing black cooks.”
Seacole was a commendable, generous businesswoman, much appreciated by her officer customers, who raised a fund to support her after her Crimean War business went bankrupt on the signing of the peace treaty, after which the soldiers and their officers had gone home.
The pairing of Nightingale with a designated co-founder was preceded by some years of denigration of Nightingale herself, indeed with numerous false accusations. Major denigrators such as F.B. Smith in his Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power (1982), got better media coverage (television interviews and not merely book reviews) than those who documented her achievements. Still, Nightingale’s accomplishments continued to be discussed, especially by statisticians, for her data visualization and broader healthcare reforms. Indeed, with the onset of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, her ability to learn from high death rates to find out “what works” made her even more relevant. She is credited with being a pioneer of evidence-based health care as well as nursing and hospital safety, as I have written in the online journal, EC Nursing and Health Care. (McDonald, 2021)
The year 2020, the bicentenary of her birth, was named the “Year of the Nurse and Midwife” by the World Health Organization in her honour. That year also saw publications accusing Nightingale of racism and even the “genocide” of aboriginal peoples when, in fact, it was she who published the first exposé of the high rates of disease and death among aboriginal children (Nightingale, 1863). That study included 13 schools in Ontario, as well as schools in Africa, Australia, and Ceylon. Yet recently two New Zealand nurses (Brookes and Nuku, 2020) charged Nightingale with “genocide” and racism, while briefly commending Seacole along the way. A Canadian nurse blogged with similarly extreme accusations (Stake-Doucet, 2020). Neither cited primary sources in support of their claims, instead adducing references to other accusers.
The pairing of Nightingale and Seacole began innocently enough as a way to elevate a black role model for nurses. The National Health Service (NHS) is the largest employer of blacks in the United Kingdom, and the celebration of black and minority exemplars of service is a valid goal. Their methods, however, were slapdash, grossly misrepresenting Seacole’s achievements.
AN EXTREME manifestation was the erection of a massive statue of Seacole at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, the original home of the Nightingale School, the first nursing school in the world, founded by Nightingale with money raised in her honour at the end of the Crimean War (1854-56). The statue of Seacole is far larger than the one of Nightingale near the Guards Crimean War memorial at Waterloo Place, or indeed anywhere else in Britain such as Leeds, Glasgow, and Derby. The Seacole statue even faces the Houses of Parliament, across the Thames River, although it was in fact Nightingale who advised and lobbied Cabinet members and Members of Parliament on improving health care. Seacole played no role at all in that. The British government led by Prime Minister David Cameron paid a substantial portion of the over £500,000 expenditure, perhaps not his worst mistake.
The bogus pairing of Nightingale and Seacole reached the royal level when the Queen in her 2020 Christmas Day broadcast described Seacole as a “nursing pioneer” alongside Nightingale, misleading millions of viewers.
Then in 2021, the Florence Nightingale Foundation announced that it would partner with the Mary Seacole Trust in giving out annual leadership awards in Seacole’s name. Its CEO, Greta Westwood, explained the pairing on the grounds that the two became “partners” during the Crimean War (Mitchell, 2021).
In fact Nightingale nursed in that war herself, led the nursing activities that went on during the war, and did much to clean up and improve hospital conditions. Meanwhile Seacole ran a small food and beverage business for officers. Seacole’s hut served as a restaurant and bar, and provided catering but, despite what numerous secondary sources say, never included any overnight accommodation, let alone a “clinic” or hospital space.
Their one meeting, according to Seacole’s memoir, took place when she visited Nightingale’s hospital en route to Balaclava to team up with her business partner, a relative of Seacole’s late husband. She asked Nightingale for a bed for the night, and got it, at a time when the Barrack Hospital was the largest and probably most-overcrowded hospital in the world. That was it!
Westwood inflated that fleeting overnight stay to a “partnership,” claiming that the Foundation had “reunited them” from that brief encounter 166 years earlier (McDonald, May 2021). Ironically, Westwood’s salary as CEO and the Foundation’s expenses generally are paid for by a fund that was raised after Nightingale’s death to keep her memory alive — not to water it down with greatly-exaggerated claims about a non-existent co-founder.
The sexism that has resulted in the pairing should be obvious: there are numerous heroic male pioneers in science and health care but men are apparently immune so far. Joseph Lister does not have a black co-pioneer of antiseptic surgery, nor does Charles Darwin have a black co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection.
Not to miss the bandwagon, the National Portrait Gallery in London staged another pairing of Seacole by hanging a large banner of her with one of Lord Nelson, the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, on either side of the gallery’s entrance off Trafalgar Square. Nelson was shown wearing honours and medals received during a distinguished naval career, and Seacole is depicted with medals either given to her or borrowed for the occasion. She herself did not win any, for they were awarded only to the military. Nightingale, as a nurse, did not get any either, though Queen Victoria had a special medal sent to her.
God Help The Prince of Wales
The year 2021 saw an even more preposterous claim for Mary Seacole in a statement by the Prince of Wales on International Nurses’ Day, May 12, 2021. No one will disagree with the prince’s opening line that “Nurses have done so much to make the nation proud,” or that the last few years have been “challenging times.” But then he got the history wrong: “It was in response to the horrors of the Crimean War that Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole turned our natural caring instinct into a profession,” he said. “Both nurses travelled hundreds of miles to a foreign peninsula to tend to the British soldiers wounded in war,” he added, even though the purpose of Mrs. Seacole’s voyage was to start a food and drink business for officers, as she made clear in her Wonderful Adventures.
Unfortunately His Royal Highness also got the timing wrong. Seacole arrived in the Crimea in the spring of 1855, months after the first three major battles: of the Alma (Sep. 20, 1854), Balaclava (Oct. 25), and Inkerman (Nov. 5). She also missed the terrible winter conditions with their high death rates, only to arrive as the weather had improved in the spring. By then two civilian commissions sent out from Britain, the Sanitary and Supply Commissions, had already vastly improved conditions in army camps and hospitals.
The prince again got the timing wrong on the establishment of the nursing profession, to which the Crimean War led only indirectly. Nurses serving in it were all untrained because there was little training before. There were 38 volunteer women including 15 Sisters of Mercy (Paradis et al., 2017). Some, especially the nuns, got a month’s experience at a hospital before leaving England. Some had been employed before as “nurses,” meaning that they had hospital jobs, but few of them had done bedside nursing in the modern sense. They were a rum lot, and many had to be sent home for drinking on the job — they got wine or strong beer as part of their rations at lunch and dinner. Late in the war a fund was raised in Nightingale’s honour, which she used to establish the world’s first training school at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, which opened in 1860. Seacole had nothing whatever to do with that. (The building was rebuilt in the 1950s after being severely damaged by Luftwaffe bombing.)
H.R.H. was wrong again on the “field hospitals” that supposedly saved so many lives. Actually there were none — the battles all took place in the Crimea, while the hospitals, such as they were, were all 300 miles away across the Black Sea in Turkey. Nightingale not only nursed in and ran the nursing in the largest of those but also did much to get laundries installed and purchased clean bedding and clothing for the vermin-infested soldiers who arrived by ship from the war zone.
DISAPPOINTINGLY, the Prince of Wales’ brief statement contained one further false claim: “Among their many achievements, it was their emphasis upon hygiene that was credited with saving so many lives. They pioneered the implementation of sanitary regulation in field hospitals so that the wounded could be looked after.” H.R.H. failed to say who actually “credited” them with saving “so many lives.” Certainly no war or medical historian springs to mind.
Seacole, meanwhile, was serving meals, wine, and champagne to officers and catering their dinner parties from her for-profit hut near Balaclava. Three chapters of her Wonderful Adventures are devoted to relating the services that she provided and the officers whom she got to know. Omar Pasha, the Turkish commander-in-chief, was one (she helped him with his English). Seacole was also a generous volunteer who gave out hot tea to soldiers awaiting transport to the hospitals across the sea, while the huts for her business were under construction. She distributed donated magazines to sick railway workers at the Land Transport Corps Hospital near her business. No doubt she cheered many with her visits, but how do such voluntary acts put her on a par with Nightingale, let alone qualify as professional nursing? If they did, there would be thousands and even millions of co-founders of professional nursing!
Nightingale assisted in the clean-up of the hospitals, but it was the Sanitary Commission, sent out by the British government, that deserves the main credit, cleaning out the sewers and drains, getting the toilets to work, and moving dead bodies further away from the water supply. If Mrs. Seacole had assisted in this clean-up, she would have had to cross the Black Sea at record speed.
Oddly enough, the eminent American nursing leader Elizabeth Carnegie described Seacole nursing night shifts alongside Nightingale at her hospital in Turkey, after running her business all day at Balaclava (Carnegie, 2000, 3-4). This would have required either a nightly 300-mile run across the Black Sea (Seacole closed her business at 8 p.m., she wrote, adding that she then relaxed with her officer friends) or some sort of Star Trek transporter.
How could Prince Charles get it so wrong? Did his staff fail him? Did he simply read off a prepared NHS text? One rumour is that, given last year’s opportunistic accusations of racism by the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, he wanted to be seen celebrating a “black” person. That is a plausible explanation. A letter to him asking for information as to what Seacole did in nursing, to name any hospital where she nursed, any nurse she ever trained or mentored, and any book or article she wrote on nursing, went unanswered (McDonald, May 2021). A similar inquiry to Dr. Westwood, CEO of the Nightingale Foundation, also went unanswered.
Missing in Action
In the United States, the identification and celebration of genuine black and other minority leaders in nursing has begun. In Britain, however, the choice of Seacole as the black leader par excellence has precluded recognition of authentic black and minority nurses who made significant contributions.
A prime example is the Nigerian-born Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (1915-1992), who became the first black person to train at the Nightingale School, in London, in 1946, and, on the job when the NHS opened in 1948, was the first black nurse in the NHS. She returned to Nigeria, after taking extra certificates in midwifery, hygiene and tropical medicine, and administration to become the first black matron at University College Hospital, Ibadan, and first black chief nursing officer for Nigeria, posts previously reserved for white expatriate British nurses. Pratt even surpassed Nightingale in her final appointment, as Commissioner for Health, the cabinet minister responsible for health, for Lagos State in 1975-77, probably the first nurse in the world to join a cabinet as health minister. Yet British authorities have eclipsed her memory with a pioneer of hospitality services who made no impact on nursing care.
Meanwhile, another nursing leader, Agnes E. Jones (1832-1868), who can perhaps be faulted for having been rich and white, is ignored — although she took on the toughest nursing job in the world in 1865, leading the first team of trained nurses at the Liverpool Workhouse Infirmary. She was successful, and the start was made, but Jones died of typhoid fever on the job in 1868. The NHS could never have been established in 1948 if the old, dreaded, workhouse infirmaries had not been upgraded, a key project of Nightingale’s, but which required heroic nurses like Jones to put into effect when bed-sharing was common, sanitary conditions poor, and overcrowding the norm.
Cancel culture gets so much wrong. What we really need, not only for Nightingale but for Henry Dundas and Egerton Ryerson and all the rest who have fallen and will in future fall victim to bogus virtue-signalling, political posturing, and myth-making, is simply a culture that gets the facts right and makes a proper study of things before proceeding to cancellation (or celebration for that matter) of genuine heroes who deserve better than their posturing, however well-meaning.
LYNN MCDONALD is professor emerita of sociology at the University of Guelph. She is the author of numerous works on Florence Nightingale, most recently Florence Nightingale, Nursing and Health Care Today (Springer, 2018). She served as the New Democrat MP for Broadview-Greenwood from 1982 to 1988, prior to which she was president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
D.L. Baptiste, et al., “Hidden Figures of Nursing: The historical contributions of Black nurses and a narrative for those who are unnamed, undocumented and under-represented,” Editorial, Journal of Advanced Nursing (Feb. 10, 2021).
G. Brookes and K. Nuku, New Zealand Nurses Organisation, “Why we aren’t celebrating Florence’s birthday,” Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand 26: 3 (Apr. 2020): pp. 34-35.
M. Elizabeth Carnegie, The Path We Tread: Blacks in Nursing. 3rd ed. Jones & Bartlett, 2000.
H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, “Nurses have done so much to make the nation proud.” The Times May 12, 2021.
Lynn McDonald, “Florence Nightingale and the Early Origins of Evidence-Based Nursing.” Evidence- Based Nursing 4,3 (Jul. 2001), pp. 68-69.
Idem, “Florence Nightingale: reflections on diversity, the National Health Service and the coronavirus pandemic,” EC Nursing and Health Care 3(4) (2021): pp. 26-31.
Idem, “Problems of Ethics and Scholarship in Nursing Publications,” Trends in Nursing and Health Care Research 1(1) (May 31, 2021): pp. 1-2.
“Problems of Ethics and Scholarship in Nursing Publications,” stephypublishers.com
G. Mitchell, “Mary Seacole Awards to be taken over by a new partnership to ‘broaden impact,’” Nursing Times, Apr. 1, 2021.
Florence Nightingale, “Sanitary Statistics of Native Colonial Schools and Hospitals,” Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (1863), pp. 475-88.
Mary Raphael Paradis, Edith Mary Hart, and Mary Judith O’Brien, “The Sisters of Mercy in the Crimean War: Lessons for Catholic health care,” Linacre Quarterly, 2017 Feb; 84(1): pp. 29–43.
Seacole, Mary. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. Ed. W.J.S. London: James Blackwood, 1857.
K. Smith, “Moving beyond Florence: why we need to decolonize nursing history,” Nursing Clio, Feb. 4, 2021.
Natalie Stake-Doucet, “The Racist Lady with the Lamp,” Nursing Clio, Nov. 5, 2020.