Profiles In Nursing

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926), America’s First Professionally Trained Black Nurse

The daughter of enslaved people, Mahoney distinguished herself as a nurse

Mary Mahoney on the left in a dress and cap. On the right, a picture of a large house

This Boston-born nurse was a true pioneer: The first Black woman in the U.S. ever to earn a professional nursing degree.

A Country Torn by Slavery

When Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in 1845, slavery was still legally practiced in half the U.S. In states like North Carolina, where both of her parents had been enslaved, it was a serious crime to teach slaves to read and write, on the grounds that it had “a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion.”

Mahoney and her younger siblings were born in Massachusetts, which had been a free state since the 1780s, but even there, widespread discrimination and segregation, official or otherwise, remained the norm. It wasn’t until she was 10 years old that a new state law permitted Black children to attend school alongside their white peers.

Mahoney took an interest in nursing as a teenager, but opportunities were scarce. Lay nursing paid poorly; there were as yet no formal training schools for nurses; and few institutions would hire people of color for any but the most menial work.

A Hospital Staffed by Women

July 1862, Marie Zakrzewska, M.D., a German-Polish immigrant who had been a midwife in Berlin before earning her medical degree, established a new hospital in Boston: the New England Hospital for Women and Children.

As its name implied, the hospital cared exclusively for female and pediatric patients. It was also operated and staffed entirely by women, providing sorely needed training and clinical practice opportunities for female physicians and surgeons.

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Not long after the hospital opened, Mahoney joined its support staff, working as a custodian, janitor and cook. She was not a nurse or even a nurse’s aide, although after she had worked in the hospital for some years and developed working relationships with the doctors, she sometimes assisted the nurses with their work, and they came to trust her judgment.

Ten Percent Graduation Rate

In 1872, Zakrzewska decided the New England Hospital for Women and Children should establish a formal nurse training school, the first of its kind in the U.S. It was an intensive 16-month program involving both classroom study and practical experience, probably inspired at least in part by the rigorous midwife training Zakrzewska had completed in Berlin before becoming a physician.

The new nursing school was nominally open to Black and Jewish applicants, which many early nursing programs were not. However, the school’s charter permitted only one Black student and one Jewish student per cohort.

In 1878, at the age of 33, Mahoney became the program’s first Black nursing student. She graduated in August 1879, the first Black woman in the U.S. to become a trained nurse. Of the 42 students in her cohort, only three others graduated. Only five more Black nurses would graduate before the turn of the century.

Nursing for $1.50/Day

Although Mahoney was now among the best-trained, most qualified professional nurses in the nation, hospitals willing to hire Black nurses — whatever their qualifications — remained few and far between. However, the Massachusetts Medical Library maintained a Nurses’ Directory, which served as a sort of bulletin board for nurses to offer their services to private parties. If local hospitals were reluctant to hire nurses of color, there were plenty of affluent white families willing to do so.

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Mahoney would spend much of her nursing career as a private-duty nurse, initially charging the princely sum of $1.50 per day. That’s the equivalent of around $40 today, a very modest amount for what could easily be 24-hour-a-day duty.

Over the next decade, Mahoney gradually built a strong professional reputation as a charming, discreet, even-tempered and highly competent private nurse, enabling her to raise her rates in 1892 to $2.50 per day or $15 per week. From 1911–12, she moved to Long Island, N.Y., to become the director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for Black Children, but she later returned to the Boston area, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Integrating Nursing Associations

In 1896, Mahoney joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, forerunner of the ANA. In its early days, the organization was not particularly welcoming to nurses of color; Mahoney was one of only a handful of Black members.

Consequently, in 1908, she became a founding member of a new organization, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). The NACGN asked her to give the opening address at the association’s first convention in 1909 and named her the organization’s national chaplain for life.

Although her official role involved no specific duties, Mahoney actively recruited some early members for that organization and was a vocal champion of Black women in nursing. She was not an imposing figure, standing only 5 feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, but her achievements and reputation helped to pave the way for the many Black nurses who followed her.

Mahoney died of breast cancer in January 1926. Ten years later, the NACGN established an annual award in her name, which has continued on a biennial basis since the NACGN merged with the ANA in 1951. In 1976, Mahoney became one of the first inductees to the ANA’s Nursing Hall of Fame.

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