Seacole causes waves of discontent

11th January 2013 at 00:00

The decision to stop teaching Mary Seacole in the national curriculum is welcome for the good reason that the material taught was wildly erroneous. For example, the "best answer" at history GCSE as to the differences between Seacole and Florence Nightingale, and "who was more important?" was this: Seacole was black and from Jamaica (she was three-quarters white). Nightingale was white and from England (true, but so what?). Seacole often tended wounded from both sides actually on the battlefield (on three occasions, post-battle, and only once did she help anyone on the other side); Seacole's main "battlefield" activity was selling food and wine to the spectators.

The "best answer" ends with the two women being "equally important for improving medical care and treatment of injured soldiers and in establishing the concept of modern nursing and its effectiveness". But Seacole had nothing to do with the founding of modern nursing, and never claimed to. Nor did she improve the care of injured soldiers. As well as those three instances of first aid, she gave out tea and lemonade to soldiers awaiting transport to general hospitals - kind acts certainly, but short of heroism.

Lynn McDonald, Professor emeritus, University of Guelph, and editor of Collected Works of Florence Nightingale.

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