A Nursing Pioneer, Illuminated

Many people, even non-nursing professionals, have heard of famous nursing pioneers such as Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, or Florence Nightingale, considered the founder of modern nursing who was also known as “The Lady with the Lamp” (her moniker, since she would administer to hospital patients at night with her lamp). During a recent lecture, however, my professor asked the class if we had heard of nursing pioneer, Mary Seacole. None of us had. Apparently, Mary Seacole was a nurse of Creole descent who also nursed wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, during the same time as Florence Nightingale. Supposedly, Mary Seacole’s fame rivalled that of Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, yet not a single one of my 28 other classmates ever heard of Mary Seacole.

Mary Seacole was a Jamaican woman who came to London with a desire to volunteer as a nurse and be recruited as part of Nightingale’s delegation of women to serve as nurses in the Crimean war. Mary Seacole was instead met with racism and was refused the opportunity to serve as one of Nightingale’s nurses. Mary Seacole, therefore, independently traveled to the Crimea to establish and fund her own hospital, the “British Hotel” and tended to sick and wounded soldiers. She wrote an autobiography describing her experience as well as personal travels, “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole”.

Mrs. Seacole was a woman who was undeterred and forged forward doing what she was called to do, to be a nurse, despite the racism and other obstacles she encountered. After hearing a bit about her from my professor and googling more about her, I decided to put her book on my wishlist and received it as a gift on my birthday a couple weeks ago. Aside from my textbooks, I’m glad to add this to my library of nursing books alongside my “Notes on Nursing” by Florence Nightingale.

While overwhelmed with school works and projects, I felt compelled to start reading and learn more about this woman. I kept meditating on the fact that I never heard of Mary Seacole, or didn’t really know of any other famous or pioneer nurses of color. It bothered me because, prior to the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I also had never heard of “Black Wall Street” or the “Tulsa Massacre”. I’m a person of color, born in Kansas City, Missouri and raised in a suburb of Kansas for my childhood. I did not grow up in a diverse area and was typically one of only a handful of minorities in all my schools. Now that I’m an adult, I realize there are gaps in my education – history, in particular – that exist due to the omission of the non-white perspective.

I’m grateful to have the opportunity to have professors offer different perspectives and illuminate the history of nursing and nursing pioneers beyond “The Lady with the Lamp”. We need to celebrate and encourage diversity in Nursing. I feel that one step towards cultural competency and addressing racism in healthcare is to take time to hear different voices and promote diversity in healthcare. This also allows me to draw from a richer well of people to inspire me to move forward in nursing, despite obstacles I might face. I encourage you to move forward, seek different voices, take action, and draw inspiration from where you find it, too.

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