mary-seacole

Immortalised in a statue in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital on South Bank last year, Mary Seacole is the first named black woman to have a memorial statue made in her image in London.

Mary Jane Seacole (nee Grant) was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1805, the daughter of a Scottish army lieutenant, James Grant, and a mixed-race Jamaican woman who kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers. She was taught traditional medicine by her mother from a young age and travelled extensively, visiting other parts of the Caribbean including Cuba and Haiti as well as Britain – staying in London for about a year around 1821, during which she added to her knowledge of medicine.

In 1836, she married merchant Edwin Seacole (he was the godson of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson – some rumours have it that he was actually his illegitimate son) but he died only eight years later in 1844. She subsequently spent some time in Central America – opening a ‘hotel’ there and aiding in the response to an outbreak of yellow fever – before returning to Jamaica where she apparently provided nursing services at the British Army HQ in Kingston.

In 1854, Seacole returned to England and, amid reports of the hardships soldiers were facing in the Crimean War which had broken out the year before, asked the War Office to send her to the Crimea as an army nurse. She was refused on multiple occasions (some say because of her race; others because she was too late to join the teams of nurses that were sent) and so she headed to Crimea herself.

There, she founded the British Hotel near Balaclava which provided food, quarters and medical care for sick and convalescent officers. She also apparently rode out to the front line of battle where she cared for the sick and wounded and such was her fame that Mary became known as ‘Mother Seacole’, earning a reputation said to rival that of Florence Nightingale.

Seacole returned to England after the war in ill health and poverty and apparently such was her renown that a benefit festival was held in her honour in July, 1857, to raise funds for her to live on. That same year she published her memoir, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.

Seacole returned to Jamaica in the early 1860s but was back in London by 1870. She died at her home in Paddington of ‘apoplexy’ on 14th May, 1881, and was buried in Kensal Green.

In 2004, Seacole was ranked the greatest Black Briton in an online poll. She has also been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque (located on her one-time residence at 14 Soho Square) and a City of Westminster Green Plaque in George Street on the Portman Estate.

The three metre high bronze statue of Mary, built through funds raised in a public appeal and installed using money granted by the government, is the work of sculptor Martin Jennings. It was unveiled by actress Baroness Floella Benjamin in June last year before a reported crowd of some 300.

A disk behind the statue is inscribed with the words of The Times‘ Crimean War correspondent Sir William Howard Russell, who wrote in 1857: “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”

Seacole remains somewhat of a controversial figure with some saying her recent fame has unfairly come at the expense of contemporary Florence Nightingale.

PICTURE: Matt Brown/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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London-sunset

Taken by Murray, this picture captures some of the city’s iconic attractions as it looks across the River Thames to Elizabeth Tower (formerly known as the Clock Tower) at the northern end of the Houses of Parliament just as the sun is setting. Westminster Bridge can be seen to the right while pictured in the foreground, in the middle of a garden located at St Thomas’ Hospital, is the Grade II*-listed sculpture/fountain, Revolving Torsion, which is the work of Russian-born artist Naum Gabo and has been on long-term loan to the hospital since the mid-1970s. Says the photographer: “Funnily enough, I shot this picture handheld and spontaneously as I though I might miss the shot. I then tried to take better ones with a tripod etc – but I think this was my best effort. Spontaneous pictures are always the best…I used to work in St Thomas’ which is behind me in the picture and looked out at this view constantly during the daytime.” PICTURE: Murray/www.flickr.com/photos/muffyc30/.

Eighteenth century physician Dr Richard Mead is noted not only for his attendance on the rich and famous of his time – including royalty – but also for his philanthropy, his expansive collections and, importantly, his contributions in the field of medicine.

Born in Stepney, London, on the 11th August, 1673, as the 11th of 13 children of nonconforming minister Matthew Mead, Mead studied both Utrecht and Leiden before receiving his MD in Italy. Returning to England in 1696, he founded his own medical practice in Stepney.

He married Ruth Marsh in 1699 and together the couple had at least eight children, several of whom died young, before her death in 1720 (he subsequently married again, this time to Anne, daughter of a Bedfordshire knight, Sir Rowland Alston).

Having published the then seminal text – A Mechanical Account of Poisons – in 1702, the following year Mead was admitted to the Royal Society. He also took up a post as a physician at St Thomas’ Hospital, a job which saw him move to a property in Crutched Friars in the City – his home until 1711, when he relocated to Austin Friars.

It was after this that he become friends with eminent physician John Radcliffe who chose Mead as his successor and, on his death in 1714, bequeathed him his practice and his Bloomsbury home (not to mention his gold-topped cane, now on display at the Foundling Museum – see note below).

Following Radcliffe’s death, in August of that year Dr Mead attended Queen Anne on her deathbed. Other distinguished patients over his career included King George I, his son Prince George and daughter-in-law Princess Caroline – in fact he was appointed as official physician to the former prince when elevated to the throne as King George II – as well as Sir Isaac Newton, lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Sir Robert Walpole and painter Antoine Watteau.

Mead, who had been named a governor of St Thomas’ in 1715 and elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1716, was over the years recognised as an expert in a range of medical fields – including, as well as poisons, smallpox, scurvy and even the transmission of the plague.

Among the many more curious stories about Dr Mead is one concerning a ‘duel’ (or fistfight) he apparently fought with rival Dr John Woodward outside Gresham College in 1719 over their differences in tackling smallpox and others which concern experiments he conducted with venomous snakes to further his knowledge of venom before writing his text on poisons.

Dr Mead was also known for his philanthropy and became one of the founding governors of the Foundling Hospital (as well as being its medical advisor) – a portrait of him by artist Allan Ramsay (for whom he was a patron), currently hangs at the museum.

Dr Mead, who by this stage lived in Great Ormond Street in Bloomsbury (the property, which backed onto the grounds of the Foundling Museum and which Mead had moved into after his first wife’s death, later formed the basis of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children), is also noted for the large collection he gathered of paintings – including works by Dürer, Holbein, Rembrandt, and Canaletto, a library of more than 10,000 books, antiquities and classical sculpture as well as coins and jewels, all of which scholars and artists could access at his home (it took some 56 days to sell it all after his death).

While Dr Mead – who died on 16th February, 1754 – was buried in the Temple Church, there is a monument to him – including a bust by Peter Scheemakers – in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey.

Dr Mead is currently being honoured in an exhibition at the Foundling Museum – The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Meadwhich runs until 4th January. There’s an accompanying blog here which provides more information on his life and legacy.

Known as “The Lady with the Lamp”, Florence Nightingale is remembered for her contribution to the development of the profession of nursing and the reform of medical practices during the Crimean War and the latter half of the 19th century.

Born on 12th May, 1820 in Florence (it’s from her birthplace that she gets her name), Florence Nightingale was the second daughter of William Edward Nightingale, son of a wealthy Sheffield banker, and Frances Smith.

She had a relatively privileged childhood at her family’s homes of Lea Hurst in Derbyshire and Embley Park in Hampshire (her father was named High Sheriff of the county in 1828) as well as occasional visits to London and received a broad education.

Believing herself to be called by God into His service when in her mid-teens, she chafed at the life set before her. It was a during visit to  convent which holidaying in Rome with family friends that she became convinced she had a mission from God to tend to the sick.

This was only furthered during a subsequent visit to a religious community at Kaiserswerth am Rhein – a training school for nurses – that finally convinced her of the possibility of making nursing a vocation for ladies. Returning to England, Nightingale took up her first official post – as superintendent of the Hospital for Invalid Gentlemen – in 1853.

The Crimean War broke out in March, 1854, and later that year, aware of reports of the suffering sick and wounded English soldiers were enduring, Nightingale offered her services to the War Office following an invitation by the Secretary for War Sidney Herbert.

Charged with authority over all the nurses (her official title was later Superintendent of the Female Nurses in the Hospitals in the East), Nightingale embarked for Crimea on 21st October with 38 nurses (there’s a plaque at 90 Harley Street – site of the hospital from which Nightingale left for the Crimea). She reached Scutari in Turkey on 4th November, the night before the Battle of Inkerman.

Headquartered in Scutari, Nightingale set about organising the military hospitals, improving general hygiene and conditions and supplies of essentials like clothes and other equipment. The wounded men soon recognised her efforts and began calling her ‘The Lady of the Lamp’ – referring to sight of her checking the wards at night.

Visiting hospitals near and in Balaclava in 1855, Nightingale fell ill from “Crimean fever” but recovered and was able to return to Scutari and continue her work. The following March Nighingale returned to Balaclava and continued to work there until the hospitals closed in July. She returned to England and the family home at Lea Hurst the following month.

In September, 1856, Nightingale had an audience with Queen Victoria at Balmoral – she used the occasion to inform the Queen and Prince Albert of the reforms needed in the military hospital system (and subsequently met with the Queen many times). Backed by data she had collected in the Crimea, Nightingale also pushed for a commission into military hospitals – it was commenced in April 1857 and Nightingale’s written evidence was critical to its recommendations.

In 1860, the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses was established at St Thomas’ Hospital in London (it was funded with £50,000 raised through the Nightingale Fund which had been established in 1855). She as unable to take up the post of superintendent due to ill health and other reasons but continued to take an active interest.

Nightingale – who wrote more than 200 books, reports and pamphlets on hospital planning and organisation, including the famous Notes on Nursing (1859), and interestingly is also said to have invented the pie chart – was also involved in establishing the East London Nursing Society (1868), the Workhouse Nursing Association and National Society for Providing Trained Nurses for the Poor (1874) and the Queen’s Jubilee Nursing Institute (1890).

Her accolades included the German Order of the Cross of Merit and the French Gold Medal of Secours aux Blessés Militaires and the badge of honour of the Norwegian Red Cross Society. She was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit and the Freedom of the City of London.

Nightingale died at the age of 90 in South Street London (just off Park Lane – there’s a Blue Plaque marking the spot), on 13th August, 1910. She was buried in the family plot at East Wellow, Hampshire.

There is a memorial to Nightingale as part of the Crimean War Memorial at Waterloo Place and a chapel dedicated to her at Westminster Abbey which is involved in the annual service commemorating her held there on her birthday, International Nurses Day, every year. For more on the service, see our earlier post here.

Well worth a visit is the Florence Nightingale Museum, located within St Thomas’ Hospital.    Highlights include her pet Owl Athena and the Turkish lantern she used in the Crimean War and the museum archives include around 800 letters from Florence Nightingale. For more on the museum, see www.florence-nightingale.co.uk.

The life of Florence Nightingale, ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, depicted here on the Crimean War Memorial at Waterloo Place, is to be commemorated at the annual service in Westminster Abbey tomorrow. The Florence Nightingale commemoration service is held “to celebrate nursing and midwifery and all staff, both qualified and unqualified working in these services”. During the service a lamp, carried this year by Claire Gibbs, will be taken from the Abbey’s Florence Nightingale Chapel (formerly known as the Nurses’ chapel but rededicated in May 2010 – the centenary of Nightingale’s death) and escorted by a procession of nurses – this year it’s students from Liverpool John Moores University – to Reverend Professor Vernon White who will place it upon the High Altar. The address will be given by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey. Nightingale (1820-1910) rose to fame for her pioneering nursing work during the Crimean War and established the first secular nursing school in the world at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. The upcoming International Nurses Day is celebrated each year on her birthday – 12th May. Tickets for this year’s commemoration service are already allocated – to apply for tickets to next year’s, keep an eye on www.florence-nightingale-foundation.org.uk for details.

It’s the most unlikely location for anything to do with a hospital. High above the street in what was a herb garrett above a former church sits what was the operating theatre for females of St Thomas’ Hospital.

Built in 1703, the attic space resembles something of a large barn and was likely first used for storing and drying herbs by the resident apothecary at the then newly reconstructed St Thomas’ Hospital (this was largely rebuilt at the end of the 17th century on the same site previously occupied by the hospital as far back as the 1200s).

In 1822, the hospital’s governors decided that part of the herb garrett be converted into a new purpose-built operating theatre for female patients. The addition of windows in what was left of the adjoining garret, meanwhile, suggest it may have been used as a recovery ward.

The first thing that assails you as you enter the herb garrett these days, having clambered up a narrow twisting staircase is the sweet, spicy smell of herbs.

There are plenty of these within the garret, each with a hand written card explaining the curative properties they were renowned for – who knew, for example, that the ash of bladderwrack, dried kelp or seaweed, could be used to treat scrofula and goitre, or that the origins of aspirin go back to 1758 when a Chipping Norton clergyman chewed on a willow twig?

Elsewhere in the space are displays featuring early surgeon’s implements (and all the horror that entails), specimen jars containing human organs, anatomical models, pill and medicine making equipment and a display on nursing (there’s also a display on the poet John Keats who briefly served as an apprentice apothecary at St Thomas’ and St Guy’s in 1815-17).

Through the garret is located the operating theatre itself, complete with the wooden operating table and series of seats for spectators. Information panels nearby speak of such things as the blood box located below the floor into which the blood drained away and the speed with which surgeon’s had to work (until 1846 there was no reliable anaesthetic and it wasn’t until 1865 that Sir Joseph Lister introduced antiseptic procedures). There’s also a panel on the resurrection men – people who traded in cadavers to meet the growing needs of anatomists in the 18th and 19th centuries (and whom were known in London and elsewhere to have murdered people to meet the demand for bodies).

For all the faux-horror of nearby attractions like the London Dungeon, it’s here that you can truly experience the horrors some people have had to face as they prepared to go under the surgeon’s knife.

WHERE: The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, 9a St Thomas’s Street, London Bridge (nearest Tube station is London Bridge); WHEN: 10.30am to 5pm daily; COST: £5.90 an adult/£4.90 concessions/£3.80 children under 16/£13.80 a family (up to four children); WEBSITE: www.thegarret.org.uk.