Florence Nightingale versus Mary Seacole

Florence Nightingale's status as the founder of modern nursing, is being challenged.

Florence Nightingale's status as the founder of modern nursing, is being challenged.


For more than a century, Florence Nightingale has been known around the world as a nursing pioneer and the founder of modern nursing.

Now she has a rival. Jamaican-born Mary Seacole has emerged to challenge Nightingale's place in history, thanks to a tireless campaign by her supporters in the U.K.

Mary Seacole
Florence Nightingale's great work began when she left a life of privilege in England, to minister to the maimed and wounded of the Crimean War of 1854, half a world away. She toiled in dreadful conditions, with filth and disease contributing to the shockingly high death rate among both soldiers and staff in the hospital.   

Nightingale's devotion and skill gave birth to the image of the Lady with the Lamp - a slender figure gliding down the dark halls of a hospital, carrying a light to comfort the suffering. In time the lamp became an international symbol of nursing, in honour of Nightingale's pioneering work.

Now there is a campaign to rewrite that history. Mary Seacole is being touted as equally, if not more deserving of the title "pioneer nurse".  She was a contemporary of  Nightingale's,  whose heroic service in  the Crimean War, claim her supporters, was eclipsed by that of the Lady with the Lamp for over a hundred years, because of race. 

In England, Mary Seacole's name has gained enormous recognition in recent years.   Her story is now included in the curriculum in English schools.  And a fund-raising campaign is underway to erect a 3 meter tall bronze statue of her on the grounds of St. Thomas Hospital in London - the home site of Florence Nightingale's School of Nursing.    

All of this has provoked a loud protest from Canadian academic Lynn McDonald. She maintains that Mary Seacole was never a nurse, and that it is just wishful thinking to believe otherwise.  Dr. McDonald has stepped into the public arena to defend  Nightingale's reputation.

Lynn McDonald is emerita professor of sociology at the University of Guelph, and the director of 16 volumes of the collected works of Florence Nightingale published by Wilfred Laurier University Press. She was a Member of Parliament for the New Democratic Party  and is a former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in Canada.  
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