Honoring Health Care Pioneers During Black History Month

Mary Eliza Mahoney

During Black History Month, NAHC will be profiling various African-Americans who have made great contributions to American health care.

Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in Boston in 1845 to two freed slaves originally from North Carolina. Though the exact date of her birth is unknown, Ms. Mahoney would spend much of the rest of her life assuring that she would never be unknown to history. The nursing profession in the U.S. owes much to her colossal efforts and achievement.

A woman with a ferocious work ethic, Ms. Mahoney began work for the New England Hospital for Women and Children at age 18, laboring 16 hours per day and seven days per week as a washerwoman, maid, and cook, until entering the Hospital’s school at age 33, seeking a nursing degree. Out of a class of 40 women, Ms. Mahoney was one of only three to graduate.

She is now recognized as the first Black registered nurse in the United States.

After graduating, Ms. Mahoney traveled in New England and nearby states, working as a private care nurse, mostly to white new mothers and their newborn children. Ms. Mahoney chose to work in private care due to the ferocious discrimination against Blacks in public nursing. Families she worked with praised her work ethic and professionalism and she gained a reputation as a first class nurse, despite the persistent discrimination and racism she suffered.

In 1896, Ms. Mahoney joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), which later became the American Nurses Association (ANA). During her time in the NAAUSC, Ms. Mahoney suffered persistent racism from her white peers, so she began working toward building a nursing organization for Black women. In 1908, Ms. Mahoney helped found the Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (ACGN) with other early Black nursing pioneers.

In 1909, Ms. Mahoney gave the opening speech at the first national convention of the NACGN and the organization elected her the national chaplain and awarded her a lifetime membership.

After working decades as a private nurse, Ms. Mahoney became the director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for black children in New York City, serving as the director from 1911 until 1912.

After 40 years in nursing, Ms. Mahoney finally retired, but she refused to stop working for the common good, becoming a leading champion of the right of women to vote. Ms. Mahoney became one of the first women to register to vote in Boston after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

After fighting breast cancer for three years, Ms. Mahoney died in Massachusetts on January 4, 1926, at the age of 80.

In 1936, the NACGN created the Mary Mahoney Award, in honor of her immense achievements, and to be given to nurses who promote integration in the field. Although the NACGN was dissolved in 1950 after a successful fight for integration in nursing, the award lives on and is given now by the American Nurses Association.

In 1976, Ms. Mahoney became one of the first inductees into the ANA’s Hall of Fame. In 1993, Ms. Mahoney was further recognized with induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

All of us at NAHC admire the work and legacy of Ms. Mahoney and urge you to keep her in mind during Black History Month when we honor the work of African-Americans who have overcome so much to make invaluable contributions to our society.