Doctor Who: The Real-Life History of Mary Seacole

Who was Mary Seacole? What Doctor Who got right about the real-life historical figure featured in "War of the Sontarans."

Sara Powell as Mary Seacole in Doctor Who: Flux
Photo: BBC Studios

Doctor Who: Flux Episode 2, “War of the Sontarans,” features Mary Seacole (Sara Powell), Britain’s first Black nurse, in the middle of a Sontaran invasion of Earth in 1855. Aliens meddling in human history is a classic Doctor Who trope, and the long-running series often grounds the sci-fi adventure in real-life history. So what was factual about Seacole’s role in the Crimean War and what was fiction from the mind of Chris Chibnall? Read on to find out…

The real Mary Seacole (née Mary Joan Grant) was born in Jamaica in 1805 to a white father and a biracial mother. Her skin tone and accent as portrayed in Doctor Who is close to reality, though some modern artist renditions make her appear darker. Seacole learned traditional herbal medicine alongside her family’s expertise in the hospitality industry. She indeed did not call herself a nurse, but the gendered term “doctoress” because nursing as a profession was in its infancy. White women were not allowed to go to medical school, let alone women of color.

The Crimean War started in 1853 with the British in an alliance with the Ottoman Empire, France, and the Kingdom of Sardinia fighting to stop the Russian Empire from controlling major international shipping ports. The British suffered heavy losses from cholera as well as war injuries. After hearing about the war in a newspaper accounts and wanting to help the troops, Seacole traveled to England to apply for nursing programs but was rejected. She went into partnership with a friend of her deceased husband to open up the British Hotel on the Crimean war front in 1855.

Although the Doctor Who episode showed more running around with Sontarans than medical practice, Seacole did treat soldiers suffering from cholera and other injuries. She also sold food and drinks. In the recent episode, the Doctor uses Seacole to observe the Sontaran base camp. Seacole wrote her own autobiography to document her life in a world where racism would have prevented “legitimate” documentation. She also studied the human body via unofficial autopsy studies and observing patients’ reactions to various medicines. 

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Some fans may remember from their history lessons that Florence Nightingale was also a nurse during the Crimean War. There’s a reason why the episode only gives her and her nurses a fleeting reference. The episode did not have enough time to explain that Seacole initially applied to Nightingale’s program and other army offices for nursing but was rejected.

Seacole’s entry in The Oxford Companion to Black British History notes: “None had the courage to engage a stout ‘yellow woman’ [her words] dressed in vulgarly bright colors, at nearly 50 well past middle-age, ‘unprotected’’ (i.e. without male relations to take responsibility for her) loudly insistent, and obviously used to being in charge.” Costume designer Ray Holman’s choice of bright plaids for Mary’s costume is supported by this quote. The rivalry continues today as Nightingale’s supporters claim supporters of Seacole’s traditional medicine and hospitality work undermines Nightingale’s legacy. However, in recent years Seacole was voted “the greatest Black Briton” in a poll by the BBC, despite these objections. This explains why Dan knew who she was aside from his casual interest in history. Black British historians, educators and medical workers have pushed for official recognition. 

While Mary Seacole was quite opinionated, it isn’t likely she would have challenged authority or assisted a challenge in authority on battle tactics. Multiple historians have pointed out that she was more likely to ask officers and others to pay their bills for booze and snacks, and ended up heavily in debt after the war because of their defaults.

Overall, the Doctor Who episode stuck to the historical trajectory when it comes to the details of Seacole’s life. Her lifesaving work during the Crimean War has been overlooked by many. Although I wish a Black screenwriter had written this episode, Seacole’s story was handled respectfully. Her story did not need many diversions. Mary Seacole died in 1881, which is quite a while after the events of the Crimean War. BIPOC fans should rest assured that she could not be killed off in the episode or die immediately after from war injuries or illness.

This Doctor Who episode, along with various statues and medical facilities named after Seacole, is a fitting tribute to her work which has gone ignored by many for so long. Seacole’s other nursing and hotel management adventures were too numerous to fit in an episode with several other plot timelines. Fans who want to read more about Seacole can read her autobiography for free, listen to the Mary Seacole episode of the BBC comedic history podcast You’re Dead To Me, or check out a biography. There is also a new biography coming out in 2022 as well as a movie in development starring Doctor Who veteran Gugu Mbatha-Raw. You can also read about other Black British Victorians who should be featured in future Doctor Who episodes.