Black History Month: Saluting our Sisters

Last updated on 2 Oct 2023

In honour of this year’s theme for Black History Month, ‘Saluting our Sisters’, our Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage Network has written about the Black women in health and science who have inspired them.

Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole was a pioneering Jamaican nurse. She rose to prominence during the Crimean war where she cared for sick and injured soldiers.

Mary was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1805 to a Black mother and Scottish father. She became interested in medicine through her mother who was a healer and ran a boarding house.

Mary nursed patients during cholera epidemics in Jamaica and Panama. She also helped organise medical care during a yellow fever epidemic in Jamaica.

In 1854 the Crimean war broke out and Mary left the Caribbean for Britain to ask to be sent to the Crimea as an army nurse. But her efforts to be recruited were rejected, possibly due to her race.

Undaunted, Mary funded her own trip to the Crimea and set up a ‘British Hotel’, which was a place where she nursed and sold refreshments to injured soldiers. At the time, Mary’s work as a nurse was celebrated in British newspapers and she was nearly as well-known as Florence Nightingale.

Mary returned to Britain when the war ended destitute and in poor health. A royal charity event was held in her honour to raise money and in 1857 she published her memoirs.

Mary died in London in 1881.

Mary is rightly recognised for her nursing career, but she was so much more than that. She was also an author, businesswoman, an adventurer and lived an unconventional life, especially for a woman of her time.

Her statue in St Thomas’ Hospital, which was unveiled in 2016, is one of the first public memorials to a Black woman in the UK.

Mary Seacole Statue.jpg
A statue of Mary Seacole at St Thomas' Hospital

Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu

Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu was the UK’s first sickle cell nurse. She was born in Birmingham in 1947 and spent the first nine years of her life in a children’s home run by nuns.

It was during her time there that she was inspired to become a nurse after receiving care from one of the nuns for her eczema.

During her long nursing career, she worked as a health visitor and tutor and worked very closely with Black and minority ethnic communities in London. During this time, she met many families affected by sickle cell disease. Sickle cell disease is a serious and lifelong health condition and is particularly common in people of African and African Caribbean descent.

Feeling frustrated by the lack of awareness of sickle cell in the UK medical community, Elizabeth travelled extensively to the US, where treatment for sickle cell was more advanced, to increase her knowledge and training.

In 1979, she helped to establish the first nurse led UK sickle cell and thalassaemia screening and counselling centre in Brent. Today there are more than 30 sickle cell centres in the UK using the Brent centre as a model.

Elizabeth went on to rise to the very top of the nursing profession. She became a senior lecturer in community genetic counselling at University College London’s Institute of Child Health. She was Dean of the School of Adult Nursing Studies and Professor of Nursing at University of West London (UWL), before establishing the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice, also at UWL.

In 2007 she successfully campaigned for a statue of her nursing hero Mary Seacole, which was unveiled at St Thomas’ Hospital in 2016.

Elizabeth became a Dame in 2017 in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours and she carried the gold sovereign Orb at the Coronation of King Charles III last May.

Dame Elizabeth is a trailblazer who made a lasting impact on the NHS and has helped to reduce health inequalities faced by Black and minority ethnic communities in the UK.

If you would like to find out more about her life please read her inspiring and uplifting autobiography Dreams for my Mother.

Dame Elizabeth Anionwu.png

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a British space scientist and science communicator. She is best known as the presenter for BBC astronomy series The Sky at Night.

Maggie was born in London in 1968 to Nigerian parents and became fascinated by space travel and science when she was a young girl.

During her childhood, Maggie struggled with dyslexia and moved to 13 different schools before she was 18.

But her love of science helped her during those difficult years. In an interview with the Telegraph, she said: 'Because science was an interest and a passion, I started reading about the subject. I was reading about it in school and I was reading about it at home. Suddenly my marks kept going up and up and up and I was at the top of the class.'

Maggie obtained a degree in physics and PhD in mechanical engineering from Imperial College London.

During her illustrious career, Maggie has worked at the Ministry of Defence on missile warning systems and landmine detectors. She has also helped design space instruments, such as the Gemini Observatory telescopes in Chile, the James Webb Space Telescope, and satellites for the European Space Agency.

As a founder of Science Innovation Ltd, Maggie has visited thousands of schools throughout the country to inspire children, especially young girls, to become interested in science.

In 2009 she received an MBE for services to science and science education.

A blog written by the HRA's Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage Network

Back to news & updates