I first heard of Mary Seacole when my daughters were set school projects that described her as the black Florence Nightingale heading to the Crimea to tend the fallen. This week, I finally read Mrs Seacole’s extraordinary account of her global adventures – a swashbucklingly exciting canter alongside a woman with a singular sense of purpose: the need to be needed and to see her name in lights as a businesswoman, healer, and acknowledged heroine.
Her gold mines did not produce as expected. She cast them aside and built a facility in Sebastopol to nurse British soldiers, using healing skills she’d learned and deployed in her Jamaican homeland and in Cholera-ridden Panama. She also provided the home cooked food and individual kindnesses that are vital to recovery. Known as Mother Seacole, the British public took her to their hearts and raised money to support her when her own ran out. She is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London. Her statue stands outside St Thomas’ Hospital in Westminster.
Leading the campaign for the statue was another extraordinary woman – Dame Elizabeth Anionwu. Her own story is itself the stuff of fairytales. The illegitimate child of Cambridge students, she lived in children’s homes till she was nine and went on to become a pioneering nurse. She co-founded the UK’s first specialist clinic for Sickle Cell Disease and Thalassemia and became a leading researcher and teacher in the field. She founded the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing at the University of West London and championed the building of Seacole’s statue.
I was privileged to interview Elizabeth about both extraordinary lives for the launch of the British Library’s ‘Unfinished Business’ exhibition. You can join our conversation here: http://living-knowledge-network.co.uk/library/the-wonderful-lives-of-mary-seacole-and-elizabeth-anionwu