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Dear Editor

I would like to thank (McDonald 2014) for raising some very important issues regarding the interpretation of historical data and what can happen when these data are interpreted in different ways by very different people. There is no doubt that various publications over the past 30 years have served to make public the work of Mary Seacole and her contributions to society and the Crimean War, and that this has led to a reinterpretation of her contribution to nursing over time. There is also no doubt that Mary Seacole was an opportunist. She probably profited from the Crimean War in perhaps ways some may see as unsavoury. On the other hand, whether she was a nurse or not, and whether her contribution in general was sufficient to warrant elevation to the status of pioneer nurse and hero, is open to wider interpretation. In Chapter XIII of her autobiography, Mary Seacole claims the following:

I must solicit my readers’ attention to the position I held in the camp as doctress, nurse, and ‘mother.’

That the officers were glad of me as a doctress and nurse may be easily understood.

Some of my Crimean patients, who were glad of me as nurse and doctress…

(Seacole 1857 p. 134)

My interpretation of these comments is that Mary Seacole did claim to be a nurse, and yet, [McDonald 2014] claims the opposite, and this is perhaps the fundamental issue. Much of historical analysis (and in fact any qualitative research) is based around interpretation of text. In historical research, it is essential that as much evidence as possible is presented to support a claim of fact. This evidence may be from various oral, documentary, pictorial, primary and secondary sources designed to support that particular interpretation (Schneider et al. 2012). Where a piece of the puzzle is missing, drawing conclusions is fraught. No one but Mary Seacole could truly tell us whether she thought of herself as a ‘nurse’, as it was defined during that period of time, or not, but the above statements would suggest that she certainly saw herself as some type of caregiver. She could, however, definitely be considered an entrepreneur. She was never hesitant to charge people for the cost of ‘necessities’ she provided in her role as ‘nurse’. Again, chapter XIII of her autobiography provides greater detail of this (Seacole 1857 p. 134). A reinterpretation of Mary Seacole as the first nurse entrepreneur may be easier to support than the claim that she was ‘not a nurse’. Her ability to balance the needs of the sick with her own need to make a living was evident.

Thus, we are drawn back to the issue of whether the elevation of Mary Seacole to the status of pioneer nurse and hero is an accurate interpretation of historical data, or if the evidence is not sufficient to warrant that claim as argued by (McDonald 2014). While I too have been concerned with the rather dramatic push towards claiming Mary Seacole as nurse pioneer and hero at what appears to be the expense of Florence Nightingale, to claim that Mary Seacole was not a hero or pioneer in any way would be to belittle what she did do in terms of providing care on the battlefield, in epidemics and in other ways. Her own book provides evidence of her contribution (Seacole 1857). Both Nightingale and Seacole have a place (albeit different) in nursing history and both should be credited for what they achieved rather than one emphasized over the other. A better approach would be to acknowledge the achievements of both and reinterpret the history in a constructive manner focusing on these achievements. Nurses today have much to learn from both Nightingale and Seacole. It may be that the learning to be taken from each is different.

References

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  2. References
  • McDonald L. (2014) Would the real pioneer and hero of health care please stand up and be recognized? Journal of Advanced Nursing doi: 10.1111/jan.12291.
  • Seacole M. (1857) Wonderful adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands. James Blackwood Paternoster Row, London. Retrieved from http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/seacole/adventures/adventures.html on 29 October 2013.
  • Schneider Z., Whitehead D., Lobiondo-Wood G. & Haber J. (2012) Nursing and Midwifery Research: Methods and Appraisal for Evidence-Based Practice, 4th edn. Elsevier, Sydney.