Who was Mary Eliza Mahoney?
Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African-American nurse to work in the hospitals of the United States. Despite coming from a poor black American family she was determined to become a nurse and joined a hospital which had the only nursing school in the whole country. She toiled as a cook, janitor, washerwoman and a nursing aide for fifteen years before she was finally allowed to study nursing. She joined the sixteen-month nursing course and graduated the next year as one of the only four students out of forty-three who could make it finally. During this course she had to provide nursing care, attend lectures, and study the different aspects of surgical, medical and maternity wards. She also had to work as a private duty nurse during the four months of training. Her reputation as a fine nurse grew more and more across the state of Massachusetts and requests for her nursing help started pouring in from adjoining states and from all over America. Her determination to provide the best nursing care and her grit to overcome all obstacles helped her become the only African American nurse at that time to get a diploma as a registered graduate nurse.
Childhood & Early Life
Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in the Dorchester area of Boston, Massachusetts, United States on May 7, 1845. Her parents were free slaves who had moved to Boston from North Carolina before the American Civil War to save themselves from racial discrimination.
She was the eldest of the three children in the family.
She studied at the ‘Phillips School’ which was one of the integrated schools in Boston which took in children from all communities.
Mary Eliza Mahoney wanted to be a nurse from a very young age and joined the ‘New England Hospital for Women and Children’ as a cook, janitor and washerwoman at the age of eighteen. She worked in this hospital for fifteen years before at the age of thirty-three she was accepted as a nursing student in 1878 by the hospital’s nursing school which was the first in its kind in the United States.
She graduated as a registered nurse in 1879 after the sixteen-month course as one of the four students out of forty three who passed the final examination and the only black woman to do so in the whole of the United States.
By 1899 she had helped five more African-American nurses graduate from the nursing school despite racial opposition from many quarters.
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Mary Eliza Mahoney registered with the ‘Nurses Directory’ at the ‘Massachusetts Medical Library’ and started working as private care nurse after getting her nursing diploma.
She strove to maintain a high degree of nursing level which was praised by all those who employed her.
She treated all patients as if they were her own family members and always considered herself as household staff in spite of invitations from the families to join them.
She was determined to change the mindset of people regarding nurses from the minority community and she was successful in her mission with the high nursing standards that she set for herself.
Often she came across racial discrimination while working in a predominantly white society. She was against all types of racial discrimination especially in the field of nursing and tried to remove them whenever and wherever she could.
In 1896 she became a member of the ‘Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada’ or NAAUSC which normally did not allow colored nurses to become members. NAAUSC later became the ‘American Nurses Association’ or ANA.
In response to this discrimination Mahoney founded the ‘National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses’ or NACGN in 1908 which welcomed nurses from all communities to become members. The NACGN later merged with the ANA.
She addressed the first annual convention of NACGN in 1900 and was made the chaplain and a life-time member of the association. By 1910 NACGN had about 2,400 members which doubled in the next 20 years.
From 1911 to 1912 she served as the Director of the ‘Howard Orphan Asylum’ located in King’s Park, Long Island, New York, run by African-Americans. This institution looked after free colored children and colored aged people.
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She was an active participant in the civil rights movement in the United States in 1920. She was among the first black women in Boston to get voting rights after the achievement of women’s suffrage in America with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
After working tirelessly in the field of nursing for forty years, Mahoney retired from active nursing service but continued working for the upliftment of colored nurses.
Awards & Achievements
The ‘Mary Mahoney Award’ for outstanding nurses was established in 1936 by NACGN which was continued even after NACGN merged with ANA. Today it is bestowed upon nurses from the minority groups biennially.
Mary Eliza Mahoney was inducted into ANA’s ‘Hall of Fame’ in 1976.
In 1993 she was inducted into the ‘National Women’s Hall of Fame’.
Personal Life & Legacy
She remained unmarried throughout her life.IIP
She was affected with breast cancer in 1923.
A ‘Mary Mahoney Memorial Health Center’ was built in Oklahoma City in her honor.
The Indiana University Northwest conducts a course titled the ‘Mary Mahoney Lecture Series’ for eliminating disparities in healthcare.
A resolution was passed by the ‘House of Representatives’ of the US Congress on April 2006 in honor of Mahoney.
The ‘Boston Women’s Heritage Trail’ has a stoppage called the ‘Mary Eliza Mahoney Dialysis Center’.
Mary Eliza Mahoney died on January 4, 1926 at the age of eighty.
Mary Eliza Mahoney fought against racial discrimination against colored and black nurses throughout her life. She participated in the Civil Rights movement to achieve women’s suffrage in America.