Monday, 12 September 2016

A fabulous guest blog post from Kate Pankhurst, author of "Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World", out now from Bloomsbury Publishing

It quite rightly won a coveted "Book of the Week" nomination from both Charlotte and I, and today we're lucky enough to talk to Kate Pankhurst, author of "Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World" about one truly awesome lady she'd love to have lunch with. 

Take it away, Kate!

My Lunch with Mary Seacole

If I had to pick one great lady from Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World to have a cup of tea with, I’d pick Mary Seacole. (Although I’m not sure if Mary’s favourite tipple was tea, so perhaps we’d sit down to a bowl of the soup she made for the soldiers she nursed back to health in the Crimean War.)

Mary Seacole (Image: © Maull and Company in London (Circa 1873)
I imagine it would be quite hard to get a word in edgeways talking to Mary. She’d probably give me a grin and readjust the military medals she’s pictured wearing in the grainy black and white photos that exist of her, before telling me just how she found the confidence to shrug off all the people who told her she wasn’t ever going to nurse soldiers in the Crimea. Even though she travelled all the way from Jamaica to Britain, to offer her services to her better known counterpart, Florence Nightingale. 

Mary Seacole © Kate Pankhurst 2016
A half Jamaican, half Scottish black woman claiming to be trained in nursing would have been quite unusual at the time, that’s maybe why Mary didn’t get the job. Most people would probably give up at that point, but not Mary. She decided to travel to Crimea on her own and even more amazingly, thought hang on … what’s stopping me opening my own hospital? NOTHING! (Not even a perilous journey across land and sea journey, lack of funds or the fact she was travelling to a freezing cold war zone.)

Mary’s hospital, The British Hotel, was very different to today’s hospitals. (All hospitals at the time were, modern medicine was yet to be established). It was a basic metal framed building providing food and shelter to injured men from both sides of the war. Mary just wanted to care for the injured men, it didn’t matter to her what side they were from.

Florence Nightingale went down in the history books as the pioneer of modern nursing. She placed hygiene higher up the priority list than her healthcare peers, who might wipe off the saw they’d use to amputate somebody’s leg with a dirty rag, or might not.

Mary Seacole © Kate Pankhurst 2016

As great as Florence was, Mary’s story made me smile and be full of admiration in a different way. She pushed the boundaries of nursing in her own slightly renegade and daredevil fashion. She did her own thing, no matter what anyone said and followed her instincts. Instincts which proved to be right. Mary’s successes are lesser known than Florence’s, but she too had the right idea about the foundations of good nursing, knowing that you can’t treat an illness or injury without paying attention to basic human needs, like a good diet and keeping warm.

Back to that imaginary sharing soup scenario – I think by the time Mary had finished telling me about her extraordinary life my soup would be untouched and well and truly cold. Her ‘hey ho! I’ll just do it anyway’, attitude got her a long way in life. As well as her exploits in Crimea, she travelled the world and wrote a gripping book about her adventures, titled The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole In Many Lands.

Not many people have had enough adventures in life to write a book like that, maybe if we all thought a bit like Mary, we would.

Kate Pankhurst