Profiles in Nursing
Mary Mahoney, the First African-American Graduate Nurse
Challenging race and gender roles
Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African-American graduate nurse, was born in 1845 in Massachusetts, a free state. She worked for many years as a maid, washerwoman, and cook at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which was the first institution in the US to offer nurses training. At the age of 33, she decided to enroll and begin nurses training.
The training program was difficult and strenuous. Courses covered twelve months of medical, surgical, and maternal nursing training, and night duty, plus four months of private duty nursing in homes in the community. The hours were 6 am to 9 pm. Student nurses were also expected to do washing and ironing, cleaning and scrubbing. Of the 40 who enrolled in the course that year, only Mary Mahoney and three others finished. In August 1879, Mahoney received her nursing diploma, becoming the first African-American graduate nurse.
She registered with the Nurses Directory in Boston and worked as a private care nurse all over the Eastern Seaboard for 30 years. According to the American Nursing Association’s website, “Mahoney inspired both nurses and patients with her calm, quiet efficiency and untiring compassion. Patients tended by Mahoney throughout her career gave glowing testimony of her expert and tender care.”
In 1896, Mahoney became a member of the American Nurses Association, which was then predominantly white. Recognizing the need for nurses to work together to improve the status of blacks in the profession, in 1908 she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). She gave the welcoming address at the NACGN’s first convention in 1911 where she was made a life member and elected chaplain.
A description of Mahoney at this meeting is given in Adah B. Thoms’ 1929 book, Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses. The book says she “was small of stature, about five feet in height and weighs less than one hundred pounds…she was most interesting and possessed an unusual personality and a great deal of charm…She was an inspiration to the entire group of nurses present.”
In addition to being very active in professional associations, she also participated in the campaign for women’s suffrage until the vote was granted by the 19th amendment in 1921. In 1923, Mahoney was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she passed away in three years later. In 1936, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Medal in her honor. The NACGN merged with the ANA in 1951, and the ANA has continued to bestow the Mary Mahoney Award, which “recognizes significant contributions, by an individual nurse or a group of nurses, to integration within the nursing profession.”
Mahoney continues to be honored for her contributions by those who preserve her memory. In the 1970s Helen S. Miller, who would write the biography, Mary Eliza Mahoney 1845-1926—America’s First Black Professional Nurse, led a drive to restore Mahoney’s grave monument in Everett, Massachusetts. In 1976, the first year that the ANA established their Nursing Hall of Fame, Mahoney was inducted.