Mary Eliza Mahoney became America’s first Black graduate nurse on August 1, 1879.
Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts on May 7, 1845, Mahoney’s parents were part of the freed southern blacks who moved north before the Civil War in search of an environment with less racial tension and discrimination.
According to multiple historical accounts, Mahoney would take janitorial duties and other menial jobs to supplement her low income, which she earned as an untrained nurse.
According to Black Past, New England Hospital which was incorporated on March 18, 1863, drafted Mahoney into its graduate nursing program. She participated in mandatory 16-hour-per-day ward duty, overseeing the well-being of six patients at a time.
On days she wasn’t supposed to be on duty, she would attend a day-long lectures. After 16 months of rigorous studying, Mahoney graduated with a diploma, making her the first African American graduate nurse in 1879.
Mahoney worked as a nurse for the next four decades after securing her license. According to reports, she attracted several private clients who were among the most prominent Boston families during her stellar nursing career.
Widely recognized as a pioneer for blacks within the nursing fraternity, Mahoney was also credited as being one of the first women to register to vote in Boston following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women’s suffrage, on August 26, 1920.
As a result of her contribution to ensuring equal opportunities for all races within the nursing profession, when the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) was organized in New York in 1908, Mahoney was called upon to give the welcoming address.
She was made a lifetime member of the organization exempted from dues and elected chaplain.
In 1911, Mahoney was made the director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for Black Children in 1911. She 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.
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.”