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Doing battle over the Crimea

17 October 2014

This is a passionate but one-sided book, says Sarah Mullally

Mary Seacole: The making of the myth
Lynn McDonald
Iguana £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT131 )

LYNN MCDONALD is an excellent researcher and author with a skill for presenting her work in a strong and readable narrative. Whether you are familiar with her previous work or not, Mary Seacole: The making of the myth will not disappoint. While it is a highly readable book derived from excellent research, the author's preoccupation with disproving the legacy of Mary Seacole at times detracts from this.

Seacole was a woman who travelled independently. A successful businesswoman, she supported voluntary service, and pursued her vocation as "docteress" and herbalist. She faced racial prejudice, and gave comfort and consolation during the Crimean War. Post-war, despite the failure of her business, she gained public support. For many of these reasons, she has since become a role-model to many.

McDonald makes excellent use of a wide range of primary sources, including letters and journal notes during the Crimean War, to piece together a narrative of the life of Seacole and place it within the context of the achievements of Florence Nightingale. In doing so, she gives us a clear image of the conditions of the Crimean War, particularly poignant at a time when we are recalling the conditions of the First World War.

McDonald paints a clear and yet powerful picture of Seacole's life, and of her achievements. In this book, McDonald's primary objective is to expose the myth that, she believes, has been created around Seacole's life, in particular by people in the education system and the Department of Health, and by a range of academics in this country. In the creation of these myths, McDonald believes, Nightingale's legacy has been undermined.

McDonald clearly expresses the concern that, she believes, Seacole has been inappropriately promoted as a black nursing heroine for a beleaguered NHS. This makes for an uncomfortable read, as McDonald makes strong statements against both academics and nursing leaders without giving them the opportunity to respond, or asking them to comment. This culminates in a feeling of being in the middle of a battle between supporters of Nightingale and Seacole respectively.

It is my view that there is room for both Seacole and Nightingale not only in our history, but also as role-models for those working in health-care. If there has evolved a myth around Seacole, it would make a far more balanced book to explore why.

The Revd Dame Sarah E. Mullally is Canon Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, and a former Chief Nursing Officer for England.

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