You may not have heard her name before, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, one woman revolutionized the field of health care in the United States. Mary Eliza Mahoney was born May 7, 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Her parents were freed slaves from North Carolina who had moved North in the hopes of finding a life with less racial discrimination. Mahoney attended the Phillips Street School, one of the first integrated schools in the state of Massachusetts.
By the time she was eighteen, Mahoney knew she wanted to be a nurse. She started working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She worked as a cook and janitor for 15 years until 1878, when at the age of 33 she was finally admitted into the hospital’s nursing school, the first professional nursing program in the country. The training was rigorous–of the eighteen women who enrolled in the course that year only four graduated. Mahoney was one of them, and in 1879, she became the first black woman to work as a registered nurse. She worked as a private nurse for many years and helped revolutionize the profession. In the 19th century, private nurses were often treated like domestic staff and assigned household chores in addition to their nursing duties, but Mahoney’s reputation for professionalism helped raise the status of nurses.
Though Mahoney had a successful career as a private nurse, she was forced to take this path because of racial discrimination against black women in public nursing at the time. In addition to building her career as a nurse, Mahoney worked to end discrimination in the field and support other black nurses. She and Adah B. Thoms co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908 to challenge discrimination and support black nurses. Mahoney’s activism wasn’t limited to racial discrimination, either. She fought against sex discrimination and was a strong supporter of the suffrage movement. After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Mahoney was one of the first women to register to vote in Boston.
Mary Mahoney died of breast cancer in 1926. By the end of her 40-year career as a nurse, she had earned a reputation for exceptional care and opened doors for other nurses of color. Before 1879, there were no black women working as professional nurses. By 1930, just four years after Mahoney’s death, there were over 4,000. Mahoney was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Since 1951, the ANA has awarded the Mary Mahoney Award recognizing excellence in the field of nursing.