Mary Eliza Mahoney: First African-American Graduate Nurse

Profile of Mary Eliza Mahoney, who became the first African American to graduate from school of nursing in 1879.

Mary Eliza Mahoney was born on May 7th, 1845 in Dorcester, Massachusetts. Her parents were Charles and Mary Jane Mahoney. The family moved from North Carolina, a slave state to Massachusetts, which was a free state. Mary became interested in nursing when she was a teenager. She worked as a maid, washerwoman and cook at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts for fifteen years. This hospital, which is now Dimock Community Health Century, was the first institution to provide nurses' training.

In 1878, when she was thirty-three years old, Mahoney began nurses' training at the New England Hospital. The nursing program was established by Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, one of the first women doctors in the United States. The courses were very difficult and the schedule was strenuous. The sixteen-month program consisted of working on the medical, maternity, and surgical wards, and private duty in patients' homes. When Mahoney began the program, her class consisted of forty students. Only four students completed the program. On August 1, 1879, Mahoney received her nursing diploma, becoming the first African American graduate nurse.

After graduation, Mahoney registered with the Nurses Directory in Boston and became a private care nurse. For thirty years she served as a distinguished, efficient private nurse and traveled to many Eastern Seaboard states to work. She insisted that nurses be treated as professionals and not be required to perform household chores in addition to their regular duties. From 1911 to 1912 she served as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for black Children in Kings Park, Long Island, New York.

In 1896, Mahoney became one of the first African-American members of the predominantly white American Nurses Association (ANA). In 1908, she cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). At the NAGN's first convention, she gave the welcoming address. She was made a lifetime member of the NACGN in 1911 and served as the chaplain. She also participated in the campaign for woman suffrage and in 1921, she was one of the first women in line to vote after ratification of the nineteenth amendment.

In 1923, Mahoney was diagnosed as having breast cancer. Her life of caring for the sick ended with her death on January 4, 1926. She is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts. In 1936, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Medal in her honor. In 1951, the NACGN merged with the ANA, which continued to bestow the reward to individuals who have worked to provide nursing opportunities for minorities. In 1976, Mahoney was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

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