In Search of Mary Seacole

The Making of a Cultural Icon

the remarkable story of a Jamaican nurse, healer, humanitarian and entrepreneur in the mid 19th century – the most famous black woman in the british empire

The end product of many years of extensive & exhaustive research, this book reveals the true story of Mary Seacole, unravelling numerous myths & misconceptions & detailing much new evidence about her extraordinary life

helen rappaport

The Search for Mary Seacole

The Making of a Cultural Icon

In Search of Mary Seacole is a superb and revealing biography that explores her remarkable achievements and unique status as an icon of the 19th century, but also corrects some of the myths that have grown around her life and career.

Having been raised in Jamaica and worked in Panama, Mary Seacole came to England in the 1850s and volunteered to help out during the Crimean War. When her services were turned down, she financed her own expedition to Balaclava, where she earned her reputation as a nurse and for her compassion. Popularly known as ‘Mother Seacole’, she was the most famous Black celebrity of her generation – an extraordinary achievement in Victorian Britain. She regularly mixed with illustrious royal and military patrons and they, along with grateful war veterans, helped her recover financially when she faced bankruptcy. However, after her death in 1881, she was largely forgotten for many years.

More recently, her profile has been revived and her reputation lionised, with a statue of her standing outside St Thomas’s Hospital in London and her portrait – rediscovered by the author – is now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. In Search of Mary Seacole is the fruit of almost twenty years of research by Helen Rappaport into her story. The book reveals the truth about Seacole’s personal life and her ‘rivalry’ with Florence Nightingale, along with much more besides. Often the reality proves to be even more remarkable and dramatic than the legend.





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‘Well-researched…Rappaport leaves no shred of evidence unexamined… And her work pays off; the Crimean section of In Search of Mary Seacole is the book’s beating heart….A comprehensive and much-deserved tribute to an incredible life.’

Linda Villarosa ― New York Times

‘Lively and entertaining… Seacole has become such an iconic figure that many legends have grown up around her, but Rappaport’s book is a more valuable monument to Seacole’s legacy than that painting [she discovered], or many of the other books and poems celebrating her life. Myth is important; but not as important as history.’ 


‘Scholarly biographer Helen Rappaport says that…the authors of school textbooks have failed to check the facts…[and] Rappaport crisps up the details. Rappaport does a terrific job of bringing respectful rigour to her account of Seacole’s extraordinary life.’


‘The story of Seacole’s life is riven with holes and clouded with myth. And it’s these absences and confusions that Helen Rappaort seeks to fill in and smoooth out in her impressive…new biography. The Seacole we meet in these pages is enterprising, intrepid, and…really rather shrewd.’ 


‘A major new study…Rappaport’s work is thoroughly documented. She has discovered a significant amount of new material. Various myths are demolished… In Search of Mary Seacole presents its subject as a woman and writer who overcame much and resists the too easy categorisations of both her own time and ours..’

John T. Gilmore ― History Today

‘Strips away the layers of mystery from the life of the heroine of the Crimean War. I love history books like this that describe the author’s voyage through the archives.’

Lucy Worsley ― Irish Independent

‘Rappaport’s fascination with her subject started twenty years ago when she discovered the 1869 portrait of Seacole that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. This image of an older woman, resolute, unfussy yet proudly wearing her honours, seems incredibly modern. The book, equally measured and impressive, feels like the biography Seacole has so long deserved.’

Clare Mulley ― Historia

‘This is an excellent book… She has doggedly pursued and expanded the leads thrown up by her methodology with consummate success. The tone of the book is engaging.’

Glenn Fisher ― The War Correspondent: Journal of the Crimean War Research Society

‘A welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on the presence of people, especially women, of African ancestry in the UK. Detailed and interesting…the book highlights the joys, frustrations, and often unrecognised challenges in all history writing.’

Meleisa Ono-George ― Lancet

‘Richly detailed…much of the book reads like a detective story. What leaps from these pages, as well as Seacole’s remarkable deeds and character, is the great esteem, indeed love, in which she was held. In this wonderful book, Dr Rappaport has created a fitting tribute.’


‘An invaluable contribution to the scholarship on Seacole… Rappaport paints a vivid picture of Seacole’s portly and brightly dressed figure treating grateful soldiers… Rappaport’s biography is a welcome contribution to our understanding of this truly remarkable medical pioneer.’ 


‘Inevitably comparisons have been made with Florence Nightingale, who also achieved fame for her nursing exploits in the Crimea, but this is unfair to both women… Rappaport’s eloquently argued work sets the record straight by revealing the life story of a most extraordinary woman.’ 


‘Rappaport fleshes out Seacole’s own account…she throws light on her subject’s family [and] there are vivid passages about British and Caribbean society. Rappaport is particularly good at addressing her subtitle [The Making of an Icon]. This portrait of an outstanding woman is timely.’ 


  ‘A carefully researched piece of scholarship, balanced and informative…This book will serve specialists in the field and casual readers equally well, and opens a window into the life of a unique and remarkable woman’


Listen to Helen’s talk for The National Archives:


Helen talks to David Olugosa for The One Show:

Click the image to watch the clip and find out more about Mary Seacole’s role in the Crimean War

In Conversation with Wanda Wyporska for HistFest 2022

The History of Nursing Lecture 2023: Mary Seacole as Doctress, Nurse and Caregiver 2023

The Lost Portrait of Mary Seacole and Its Forgotten Artist

Helen as talking head & consultant for the series The Real Angel of the Crimea about Mary Seacole

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Latest Articles and Media about Mary Seacole & Black Victorian History

Mary Seacole, Creole Doctress, Nurse and Healer

In Crimea during 1854–5 Mary Seacole demonstrated that her home-grown Jamaican practice of hygiene, healthy food, natural remedies and kindness – had a lot more to offer than traditional medicine, making her nursing practice a far more modern, holistic one that people might have imagined.

You can find more videos, podcasts and other media on the topic of the Mary Seacole & Black Victorian History on Helen’s main page for this area of expertise HERE

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