Born May 7, 1845, in Boston, Massachusetts, Mary Mahoney was the daughter of freed slaves. Her parents moved from North Carolina to afford Mary a better life, and she attended the Phillips School, one of the first integrated schools in the country.
Mary knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse. Her journey began as a teenager at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was serviced by a staff of all-women physicians. Before becoming a nurse, however, Mary worked for nearly 16-hour days for 15 years at the hospital as a janitor and cook. She was ultimately able to work as a nurse’s aide, finally getting an introduction and hands-on experience into nursing.
In 1878, at the age of 33, Mary entered a rigorous 16-month nursing program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Her training included spending a year in the hospital’s various wards to learn about different specialties. Days were long, beginning at 5:30 a.m. and concluding at 9:30 in the evening, and included lectures and lessons in addition to hands-on training. Out of the 42 students admitted to the program, Mary was one of only four to complete the program and receive a degree. She became the first Black licensed nurse in 1879.
Mary chose to practice as a private care nurse working for predominantly wealthy white families, primarily providing care to pregnant mothers and babies. Nurses working in public care endured overwhelming discrimination during this time, limiting the duties they could perform. While Black nurses working private care environments were also met with racial bias and often treated as second-class citizens, Mary was able to care for patients to her full capabilities.
In 1908, Mary co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) alongside fellow Black registered nurses Martha Minerva Franklin and Adah B. Thoms. The association’s mission was to break down discriminatory practices against Black nurses, develop Black nurse leaders, and achieve overall higher professional standards. For almost 50 years and through both World Wars, NACGN worked tirelessly to increase opportunities for its members. They were strong allies of and advocated for the passage of the Bolton Act in 1943, which provided federally subsidized education for the U.S. Nurse Cadet Corps and allowed thousands of Black nurses to receive training for employment in the armed forces, government and civilian hospitals, health agencies, and war industries. In 1951, NACGN became a part of the American Nurses Association (ANA), at which time, ANA expanded its programs for the complete integration of Black nurses.
Mary Mahoney died at the age of 80 on January 4, 1926, after battling breast cancer for three years. However, her legacy and pioneering spirit continue to live on in the generations of Black registered nurses and the several awards and memorials established in her memory. In 1936, the NACGN founded the Mary Mahoney Award, given to nurses or groups of nurses who promote integration within their field. Nurses are recipients of this award to this day as part of ANA’s National Awards, which recognize outstanding contributions to the nursing profession and the field of health care. ANA inducted Mary into its Hall of Fame in 1976, and she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Helen S. Miller, winner of the Mary Mahoney Award in 1968, led a fundraising drive for a memorial at Mary’s gravesite at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts. It was erected in 1973.
National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, Social Networks and Archival Context (snaccooperative.org)
The Bolton Act, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing (case.edu)
Biography: Mary Eliza Mahoney (womenshistory.org)
Mary Eliza Mahoney, Wikipedia
Hall of Fame Inductees (nursingworld.org)