She was the first!
Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in Boston, Massachusetts during the spring of 1845, the National Women’s History Museum reports. She was the daughter of free but formerly enslaved people who had migrated to Boston from North Carolina and learned why it was important to strive for equality as a Black woman at an early age. She received an education at Phillips School in Boston, which would later become one of the first integrated schools in the nation. By the time she was a teen, Mahoney had already decided she wanted to become a nurse.
She landed a job at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, working alongside an all-women staff for 15 years. While there, Mahoney served as a janitor, cook, washerwoman, and nurses’ aide. The hospital opened one of the first nursing schools in the U.S. and in 1878, 33-year-old Mahoney entered the graduate school for nursing. The program was intense and lasted for 16 months; many of Mahoney’s peers didn’t make it. In 1879, she finally graduated from the program, making history as the first Black woman to become a licensed nurse in the United States.
While Mahoney found the schooling beneficial, after graduation, she rejected a formal career in public nursing due to racism. Instead, she forged a path as a private nurse, attracting a roster of majority wealthy white families that she serviced up and down the East Coast. A consummate professional, Mahoney was able to build quite a career for herself and succeed in her chosen profession.
In addition to her work with her patients, Mahoney also became active within the professional community, joining the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), later known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). She also co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908, the organization electing Mahoney to the role of national chaplain and granting her a lifetime membership the following year. From 1911 to 1912, she also served as the director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for Black children in Long Island, New York.
After four decades as a nurse, Mahoney retired but she never stopped advocating for racial equality, particularly in the area of women’s rights. In August 1920, after the 19th Amendment was ratified, Mahoney became one of the first women who registered to vote in Boston. She passed away at the age of 80 on January 4, 1926 after a three-year battle with breast cancer. Today, her burial site in Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts has become a memorial site.
Mahoney earned numerous accolades while she was alive and even more since her passing. In 1936, the NACGN founded the Mary Mahoney Award in honor of its founder. The award is given to nurses who embody Mahoney’s values and promote integration within the sector. Today, the ANA continues to give out the Mahoney Award and in 1976, the ANA inducted the late legend into their Hall of Fame. In 1993, she was inducted again, this time into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
We remember the work of Mary Eliza Mahoney and thank her for her immense contributions to the field of nursing.
Meet Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first Black licensed nurse. Photo Courtesy of the National Women’s History Museum