If you are a medical professional (particularly a Black medical professional), or just an overall Black-history buff, you likely have heard of Mary Eliza Mahoney.
For those who have been denied tales of Mahoney’s excellence, she is heralded as the first African-American licensed nurse.
Mahoney worked in nursing for almost 40 years before retiring, but during her time as a medical professional, as well as long after, she was a champion of women’s rights. A trailblazer, not just as a Black person, but also as a woman.
Mahoney’s story starts in 1845 in Boston, where she was born to freed slaves. Her exact date of birth is unknown, but she is believed to have been born in the spring, the National Women’s History Museum notes.
Even as a teenager, Mahoney knew she wanted to become a nurse, and she began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which, as its name suggests, provided health care exclusively to women and their children. At the time, the hospital was also known for its all-women staff of doctors.
There, Mahoney worked from the ground up over the next 15 years, in jobs such as janitor, cook and washerwoman, while also seizing the opportunity to work as a nurse’s aide.
The hospital operated one of the first nursing schools in the United States, and as you can probably guess, in 1878 a then 33-year-old Mahoney was allowed to enter the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing. During the intensive 16-month training program, students attended lectures and got hands-on experience in the hospital.
The program was rigorous, and according to the Women’s History Museum, of the 42 students who entered the program, only four, including Mahoney, completed the requirements in 1879. In the same breath, she became the first Black person in the U.S. to earn a professional nursing license.
Mahoney would go on to serve as a private-duty nurse for the remainder of her impeccable career (she decided against public nursing because of the rampant discrimination there) and became known across the East Coast for her “efficiency, patience and caring bedside manner,” according to the Women’s History Museum.
A staunch advocate of those within the profession, Mahoney became a member of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC, later known as the American Nurses Association) in 1896. But she faced discrimination at NAAUSC, which had a predominantly white membership, so Mahoney took it upon herself to co-found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908.
Within the next year, Mahoney would give the opening speech at NACGN’s first national conference. At the convention, members selected Mahoney to be the national chaplain and presented her with life membership.
Mahoney eventually became director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for Black Children in 1911. Even after her work as a nurse came to an end and she retired, she never stopped fighting for justice. After the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920, the Women’s History Museum notes, she was among the first women who registered to vote in Boston.
After a lifetime of giving medical care to others, Mahoney ended up with her own medical struggles and died on Jan. 4, 1926, at the age of 80 after a three-year battle with breast cancer. Her grave is located at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts.
Even if Mahoney’s contributions sometimes go unnoticed, there are many ways that those within the medical profession have tried to keep her legacy alive. In 1936 the NACGN, which ultimately merged with the American Nurses Association, founded the Mary Mahoney Award, which is given to nurses or groups of nurses for their efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in the nursing world. In 1976 the American Nurses Association posthumously inducted Mahoney into the Nursing Hall of Fame, noting that she “inspired both nurses and patients with her calm, quiet efficiency and untiring compassion.”
In 1993 Mahoney was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the nation’s oldest membership organization dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the achievements of American women in areas including the arts, athletics, business, education, government, humanities, philanthropy and science.