Mary Seacole’s interesting treatment for cholera

As for her ‘nursing’ prowess, the young Seacole learnt herbal healing from her mother, who worked as a ‘doctress’ (healer), and gleaned informal tips from doctors staying with her family.

Her expertise in this area, however, can only be taken on faith. There is no hard evidence.

As for the herbal ‘remedies’ she used for cholera, for instance, she described in her memoirs how she added lead acetate and mercury chloride. Both are highly toxic, cause dehydration and produce the opposite effect to the treatments used by doctors today.

I am too old to have learned about Seacole at school, it’s a recent phenomenon this lauding of her. And it’s worth reading that piece in full because the generally told stories about her seem to be entirely bollocks.

24 thoughts on “Mary Seacole’s interesting treatment for cholera”

  1. Har treatments for cholera may well have got rid of the cholera, but on this evidence probably only by getting rid of the patient as well. A success !

    Alan Douglas

  2. bloke (not) in spain

    Oh, there’s little doubt she was one of the pioneers of modern medicine.
    Her inheritors give you the lethality of fat in the diet, sugar as a poison etc etc etc.

  3. Of course you didn’t learn about her at school, like me, you were educated rather than indoctrinated and history did not depend for its factual basis on the colour of someones skin!
    I likewise learned about the precursors and campaigns of the American civil war and sod all about Sojourner Truth or any of the other ‘black history’ made up bollocks.
    Until this becomes the norm again, we will have generations of un educated thugs ill equipped to do anything in the world.

  4. It is however worth bearing in mind that orthodox medicine of the era was also predominantly bullshit.

  5. My distant memory of F Nightingale was that she insisted on separating the injured and sick from each other (individually) which wasn’t bullshit but relatively advanced for the time. But Flo was middle class and white and her granddad probably held slaves.

  6. Ian B:
    A bit harsh perhaps, they were trying with innoculation (after Jenner) to cure smallpox, improving drains to cure cholera and working on germ theory to actually understand disease. they also were coming up with anaesthetics and basic hygene so that the mortality rate for surgery dropped.
    They were not up to some modern standards by any means, but they did their best with what they had.

  7. History taught/distorted/cherry picked to reflect the values/agenda of the rulers and their bum lickers (or academics, to use a technical term).

    I was taught the benevolence and innate goodness of the British Empire and its rulers. Pendulum swang and seems to be swinging again. Same old, same old.

    The spell check on here has even highlighted ‘swang’ as wrong. Some idiot trying to change English.

  8. Mind you, she does seem to be far far ahead of time in combining private health care provision and private military logistic support. Not even Haliburton managed to do that, I think.

  9. As for the herbal ‘remedies’ she used for cholera, for instance, she described in her memoirs how she added lead acetate and mercury chloride. Both are highly toxic, cause dehydration and produce the opposite effect to the treatments used by doctors today.

    A strange criticism. She was neither the first or the sole person to use those compounds.
    Try this for a history of treatment for cholera:

    Indeed, the man who got it right (or as good as, for the time) was attacked by the ‘experts’.

  10. Robert The Biker-

    Maybe I was a trifle harsh, but medicine of the time was mostly a matter of crankish opinion rather than science. Even the germ theory wasn’t to be generally accepted until very late in the 19th century. I’m probably a little biased right now because I’ve been doing a lot of arguing about circumcision the past couple of days (mostly at the Telegraph) and thus have it uppermost in my mind that the prevalence of this morbid fetish in the USA is largely the consequence of an influential doctor who declared it a universal cure for innumerable “nervous diseases” that no longer exist.

    It’s only really in the 20th century that medicine became the scientific discipline we expect it to be today. So Seacole’s quackery does need to be seen in that wider context.

  11. ” innumerable “nervous diseases” that no longer exist.”

    should read something like

    “innumerable “nervous diseases” that are no longer recognised to even exist”.

  12. @Robert,

    IanB did say that orthodox medicine of the day was _predominantly_ bullshit, not all bullshit.

    But it’s a contention on which I am torn. Most pre-current medical systems have an element of functional, by trial-and-error stuff. All of them concentrate heavily on palliative rather than curative therapies, a lot of it by hocus-pocus. In other words, all about as good as was possible in the pre-scientific paradigm. The paradigm shift was when people realised that an evidence base for a curative claim was needed (and checking that mercury/arsenic concoctions didn’t do more harm than good), and it wasn’t one single person who was responsible for that on whom we can hang a pleasing narrative. So we end up lauding the people who through fortune or insight made things better.

    The drug industry is actually heading back in that palliative, hocus-pocus direction, having run out of things that could be cured (economically as much as biologically) but aren’t yet curable.

  13. Robert the B: Until this becomes the norm again, we will have generations of un educated thugs ill equipped to do anything in the world

    …except proclaim their victimhood.

  14. “it’s worth reading that piece in full because the generally told stories about her seem to be entirely bollocks.”

    Given the ludicrous claims made in the piece on behalf of Florence Nightingale, I’m doubtful that the piece is an entirely bollocks-free zone. She was no more the ‘inventor of nursing’ than Tim.

  15. She did do a hell of a lot to put it on some kind of a modern footing though, Dave. I mean, credit where it’s due and all that.

  16. Ian>

    She did a lot in this country to bring our standards up to date with (then-) modern medical practice, but she was hardly some great innovator, or someone who went off on her own. She was thoroughly establishment; for example, she went to the Crimea after she was sent by the government to lead a team of nurses to sort out the conditions she famously found there.

    Her real success wasn’t the individual medical advances claimed in her name, but that she was one of a number of prominent Victorian women proving that sex was no bar to having what these days we’d call a career. Nursing by upper class ladies had been a very long-standing tradition, but Nightingale was unusual in wanting to dedicate her life to it as a career, rather than just attending to it when necessary locally.

    Despite the myths, opposition to her becoming a nurse wasn’t because nurses were seen as disreputable drunks, because most nurses at the time were nuns or lay sisters.

  17. “it’s worth reading that piece in full because the generally told stories about her seem to be entirely bollocks.”

    all those books are wrong when it suits, I guess

  18. IIRC, Florence Nightingale was actually not a very good nurse. Her wards were as bad as, or maybe worse, in terms of outcomes than the standard army ones. BUT she was scrupulously honest in recording the results. So people began to work out what worked and what didn’t.

    Can’t remember source – best guess “Adapt” by Tim Harford.

  19. She may have been a good and sympathetic nurse but Flo was also a self mythologising fantasist. She spent the last decades of her life in bed, refusing to help out.

    As for myths, the frogs got there first with Joan of Arc. Burnt at the stake by a 100% French ecclesiastical court in reality, done in by the Riosbifs as any French fule kno.

  20. You need to get up to date with Afrocentrism Tim. Especially the work of Cheik Anta Diop. That guy told US blacks so many made up stories about black people that some people actually believe what he claimed. The Mary Seacole claim is just a UK version of the same attempt to rewrite history to favour a specific race.

  21. @IanB

    Universal Circumcision (for men of course) was brought in in the US by christian do-gooders (e.g. Kellog) in the 1800s to stop boys from w**king.

    In fact I believe that one way to solve the Middle Eastern problem would be to ban circumcision there for both sides. They would all be a little less tense and ready to focus on the problem in hand, or not.

  22. It’s a pity that partisans of Seacole and Nightingale should feel the need to denigrate each other’s heroines.

    “In the case of Mary Seacole, the cause is to promote her as an early black heroine who lovingly tended British troops in the Crimean War”, McDonald writes. That seems reasonable to me: Seacole was in fact black, in the modern usage of the word, and apparently did lovingly tend British troops in the Crimean War – she didn’t get to be so popular with them by selling tinned lobster.

    A good part of McDonald’s criticism of Seacole seems to be on the grounds that, unlike Nightingale, she hadn’t inherited enough money not to need to make a living, and she wasn’t a personal friend of the Secretary at War, in a position to have herself sent to the Crimea by the British government.

    Nightingale’s status as a heroine of the Crimean War is itself a myth, created as a reaction to the horrors of war conveyed to the public for the first time by electric telegraph. In reality, while the contribution of her nurses was welcome, the huge reduction in the mortality rate from disease during the war was thanks to a Sanitary Commission which cleaned up the hospitals.

    Nightingale’s best work came after the Crimean War, both in her contributions to the development of nursing as a profession and, especially, in her work on mortality statistics and their presentation, which established beyond doubt the importance of good sanitation in hospitals.

    Let’s have statues of both of them.

  23. PaulB has it right. Florence Nightingale’s treatment for cholera was based on the idea that the disease is airborne, and she resolutely clung to this idea to her death twenty years after this idea had been proved to be complete bollocks.

    So it seems unreasonable to criticise Mary Seacole in hindsight for the same faults as Florence Nightingale.

    Overall both women were, as PaulB points out, major contributors to improvements in public health. Good for them.

    Finally, Tim, (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again) you really must stop relying on the Mail and the Telegraph for information on health matters.

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