Mary Eliza Mahoney is recognized today for being the first African American professionally trained nurse in the US but the true impact she had on history had far more to do with how she paved the way for eliminating racial discrimination in healthcare.
Mary was born in May of 1845 in Boston Massachusetts, the oldest of four children to freed slaves. The impact of the Civil War in America was so widespread that it’s thought that seeing the importance of healthcare providers inspired Mary to pursue nursing.
She was accepted into program for women to enter the healthcare field, despite the fact she was older than the other candidates. Mary had already been working at New England Hospital for Women and Children for the prior 15 years as a cook, maid and washerwoman so she was known by the administration to be both dedicated and hard working.
Upon graduating, Mary became the first African American nursing graduate in US history. Due to racial discrimination, she preferred private duty nursing and acquired an outstanding reputation among her patient’s families. Functioning mostly with mothers and newborns, Mary’s expertise was widely requested by wealthy families around the country. In this regard, she may also be viewed as the first travel nurse in American history, as well.
By all accounts Mary was quiet and kept to herself when she wasn’t working. She believed in setting a high standard as a healthcare provider and she spent her free time reading and attending church services. It may be during these moments she was strategizing her goal to make a difference helping people achieve their life goals, unhindered by discrimination.
Mary was a successful African American woman working in a field filled predominantly with white men and her perseverance in succeeding cannot be overstated. In 1896, she became one of the founding members of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC). As the group would later be unwilling to accept African American women into the organization, Mary would go on to co-found another, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). Both organizations would later merge to become the American Nurses Association (ANA).
In that merger, the ANA kept the NACGN’s Mary Mahoney Award, created in 1936 and given every 2 years to someone who has made significant contribution in advancing equal opportunities in the nursing field for members of minority groups. Mary was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976, the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and has a facility named after her in Oklahoma City, OK, the Mary Mahoney Memorial Health Center.
Mary Eliza Mahoney passed away at the age of 80 in 1926, after a 3-year battle with breast cancer but clearly her legacy and influence continue to make an impact on both equality issues and upon the field of nursing.
Read more about Mary Mahoney here.