Mary Eliza Mahoney (May 7, 1845 – January 4, 1926) was the first African American to study and work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States, graduating in 1879. Mahoney was one of the first African Americans to graduate from a nursing school, and she prospered in a predominantly white society. She also challenged discrimination against African Americans in nursing.

In 1908, Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Adah B. Thoms. This organization attempted to uplift the standards and everyday lives of African-American registered nurses. The NACGN had a significant influence on eliminating racial discrimination in the registered nursing profession. In 1951, the NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association.

Mahoney has received many honors and awards for her pioneering work. She was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976 and to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Mahoney’s parents were freed slaves, originally from North Carolina, who moved north before the Civil War in pursuit of a life with less racial discrimination. Mahoney was the oldest of four children; with one sibling dying early on as a child. At a young age, Mahoney was a loyal Baptist and churchgoer who frequently attended People’s Baptist Church in Roxbury. Mahoney was admitted into the Phillips School at age 10, one of the first integrated schools in Boston, and stayed from first to fourth grade. Phillips School was known for teaching its students the value of morality and humanity, alongside general subjects such as English, History, Arithmetic, and more. It is said this instruction influenced Mahoney’s early interest in nursing.

Mahoney was briefly engaged to an unknown doctor some time during her life, although it is speculated to have happened around her early 20s. The engagement did not long and left both parties emotionally damaged. From then, Mahoney did not marry and remained single for the rest of her life.

Mahoney knew early on that she wanted to become a nurse; possibly due to seeing immediate emergence of nurses during the American Civil War. She was admitted into a 16-month program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children (now the Dimock Community Health Center) at the age of 33, alongside 39 other students in 1878. The NEHWC became the first institution to offer such a program allowing women to work towards entering the healthcare industry, which was predominantly led by men. The criteria in which the hospital utilized while choosing students for their program emphasized that the 40 applicants would be “well and strong, between the ages of 21 and 31, and have a good reputation as to character and disposition.” It is presumed that the administration accepted Mahoney, despite not meeting the age criteria, because of her connection to the hospital through prior work as a cook, maid, and washerwoman there when she was 18 years old. Mahoney worked nearly 16 hours daily for the 15 years that she worked as a laborer.

Mahoney’s training required she spend at least one year in the hospital’s various wards to gain universal nursing knowledge. The work within the program was intensive and consisted of long days with a 5:30 A.M. to 9:30 P.M. shift, requiring Mahoney to attend lectures and lessons to educate herself through instruction of doctors in the ward. Outside of the lectures, students were taught many important bedside procedures such as taking vital signs and bandaging. In addition, Mahoney worked for several months as a private-duty nurse. The nursing program allowed for the students to earn a weekly wage, ranging from 1 to 4 dollars, after their first two weeks of work. Many nurses did not see the weekly wages as significant as many of them were struggling financially and thus were giving back 25% of their wages for financial assistance to the hospital. Three quarters of the program consisted of the nurses working within a surgical, maternity or medical ward with six patients they were responsible caring for. The last two months of the extensive 16-month long program required the nurses to use their newfound knowledge and skills in environments they were not accustomed to; such as hospitals or private family homes. After completing these requirements, Mahoney graduated in 1879 as a registered nurse alongside 3 other colleagues — the first black woman to do so in the United States.

After gaining her nursing diploma, Mahoney worked for many years as a private care nurse, earning a distinguished reputation. She worked for predominantly white, wealthy families. Majority of her work with new mothers and newborns had been done in New Jersey, with the occasional travel to other states. During the early years of her employment, African American nurses were often treated as if they were household servants rather than professionals. Mahoney emphasized her preference to eating dinner alone in the kitchen, distancing herself from eating with the existing household help, to further dismiss the relation between the professions. Mahoney also lived alone in an apartment in Roxbury where she spent time reading and relaxing, while also attending church activities with her sister. Nevertheless, families who employed Mahoney praised her efficiency in her nursing profession. Mahoney’s professionalism helped raise the status and standards of all nurses, especially minorities. Mahoney was known for her skills and preparedness. As Mahoney’s reputation quickly spread, Mahoney received private-duty nursing requests from patients in states in the north and south-east coast.

One of many goals that Mahoney had hoped of achieving, was to change the way patients and families thought of minority nurses. Mahoney wanted to abolish any discrimination in the nursing field. Being an African American, in a predominantly white society, she often received discrimination as an African American nurse. Mahoney didn’t understand racial discrimination in a workforce such as Nursing. In Massachusetts particularly, it was difficult for African American nurses to find work following graduation due to the limitations of either working in African American homes or working in white homes that already have African American employees in household work. She believed that all people should have the opportunity to chase their dreams without racial discrimination. It is said that Fredrick Douglass, a prominent African American abolitionist and ex-slave of the time, was distantly related to Mahoney which became one of the influences on Mahoney’s active participation against the repercussions of slavery and racial discrimination against minorities in the United States.

From 1911 to 1912, Mahoney served as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for black children in Kings Park, Long Island, New York. The Howard Orphan Asylum served as a home for freed colored children and the colored elderly. This institution was run by African Americans. Here, Mary Eliza Mahoney finished her career, helping people and using her knowledge however she knew best.

In 1896, Mahoney became one of the original members of a predominantly white Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), which later became the American Nurses Association (ANA). In the early 1900s, the NAAUSC didn’t welcome African-American nurses into their association. In response, Mahoney founded a new, more welcoming nurse’s association, with help of other founders, one being Martha Minerva Franklin. In 1908, she became co-founder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). This association didn’t discriminate against anyone and aimed to support and congratulate the accomplishments of all outstanding nurses, and to eliminate racial discrimination in the nursing community. The association also strived to commemorate minority nurses on their accomplishments in the registered nursing field. In 1909, Mahoney spoke at the NACGN’s first annual convention, which became the first time that Martha Minerva Franklin and Adah Belle Samuels Thoms met Mahoney in person. The NACGN struggled in their early stages with only 26 female nurses in attendance of their first national convention. In her speech, she recognized the inequalities in her nursing education, and in nursing education of the day. The NACGN members gave Mahoney a lifetime membership in the association and a position as the organization’s chaplain.

In retirement, Mahoney was still concerned with women’s equality and a strong supporter of women’s suffrage. She actively participated in the advancement of civil rights in the United States. In 1920, after women’s suffrage was achieved in the U.S., Mahoney was among the first women in Boston to register to vote.

In 1923, Mahoney was diagnosed for breast cancer and battled the illness for 3 years until she died on January 4, 1926, at the age of 80. Her grave is located in Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts.

In recognition of her outstanding example to nurses of all races, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936. When NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association in 1951, the award was continued. Today, the Mary Mahoney Award is bestowed biennially by the ANA in recognition of significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities in nursing for members of minority groups.

Mahoney was inducted into the ANA’s Hall of Fame in 1976. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

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