In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to focus on pioneer Mary Eliza Mahoney (May 7, 1845 – January 4, 1926). She is the first black woman to study and work as a professionally-trained nurse in the United States.
Mary Mahoney worked for 15 years as a maid, washerwoman, janitor, and cook at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts, before she was allowed to enroll in nursing school at the age of 33.
In 1879, out of 42 students who started the program with her, Mahoney was one of only four to complete the extremely difficult practicum. In the past, only one African-American student and one Jewish student could be enrolled in the rigorous training class at a time. Her graduation changed the face of nursing education at the institution.
Mahoney then recognized the need for nurses to work together to improve the status of blacks in the nursing profession. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Adah Belle Samuels Thoms and Martha Franklin in 1908.
In 1896, Mahoney became one of the first African-American members of the predominately white American Nurses Association (ANA), which eventually merged with the NACGN in 1951. Today, the ANA commemorates Mary Mahoney and her significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities in nursing for minorities, and promoting diversity throughout the nursing profession.
Mary continued to participate in the NACGN’s activities until her death from breast cancer in 1926. She is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts. In 1976, Mahoney was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame and in 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Mary's pioneering spirit lives on in a number of initiatives to promote the profession in underrepresented minority groups. One of these is a nursing scholarship opportunity for those who are enrolled full-time in a doctoral nursing program or a clinically-focused master’s degree program. Sponsored by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) and Johnson & Johnson, it is geared towards nurses who plan on teaching in a nursing school after completing a postgraduate degree. Click here to learn more.