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Black History and Nursing - Mary Eliza Mahoney

By Ziggie

Black History month is a time of reflection. A time where we look back at historically significant African American figures that changed the landscape for civil rights. During this time, I would like to put a beacon on a lesser known Black historical figure that had an insurmountable impact on lives back then and today. Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first formally trained Black nurse in America. A woman whose nursing acumen had those living in the late 1800’s writing letters to locate her to take care of their family members! This blog will focus on Mary and the Nursing profession. 

Nursing today is a well-respected career. For over 18 years, nurses have ranked number one as the most trusted profession in the Gallup poll by Americans. You have advanced practice nurses, nurses that provide primary care for millions, and travel nurses that go across the country to provide care for others. In almost any healthcare setting, nurses are at the forefront of patient care. When we look at travel nursing, we have to give credit to Mary Eliza Mahoney for pioneering that industry. 

Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in Boston, on May 7, 1845, as the oldest of three children. At the age of 18, she decided to pursue a career in nursing, working at the progressive New England Hospital for Women and Children. In 1878, at age 33, she was accepted in that hospital’s nursing school, the first professional nursing program in the country. Of her class of 42, she was one of only four who graduated from the program. Her training was intensive, and she worked in the medical, surgical, and maternity wards. Lectures were also part and parcel of the course by physicians. And during her training, she was required to do four months of private duty nursing. 

After graduation, Mary was a full-time private duty nurse. The families that she worked with praised her calm and quiet efficiency. Mahoney also helped elevate the status of nurses. During her time, frequently, nurses were seen as “the help” rather than trained medical professions and were assigned domestic duties. Mary is notable for advocating for her job and refused to be treated like a maid. While working, she gained an excellent reputation and had requests from far away states like New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina. 

Mahoney also joined an organization that would later be known as the American Nurses Association as one of the first Black nurses. She noted that the group was slow to admit Black nurses and supported the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (N.A.C.G.N.), and delivered the welcome address at that organization’s first annual convention in 1909. In that address, Mary highlighted the inequalities in nursing and that Black women needed a fair chance to pursue nursing education. The conference members took her comments seriously and even elected her to the associations’ chaplain and granted her a lifetime membership. 

Mahoney was also a women’s rights advocate and fought for the right to vote, and after the passage of the 19th amendment, she voted in her first election at age 76! 

In 1923, Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer and died three years later in 1926. After her death, a memorial to her life was erected in Massachusetts. The American Association of Nurses inducted her into their hall of fame in 1976. Mahoney’s life had a significant impact on the African American community. The number of Black women in the nursing profession had more than doubled just four years after her death. 

Mary Eliza Mahoney, without question, was and still is a pioneer in the nursing profession. Her work ethic and advocacy outreach granted nurses prestige and respect. Mary’s contribution to Black History should be talked about outside of even the month of February. Today nurses are the face of healthcare, and incredible people like Mary Eliza Mahoney made that possible.