Nursing Stories: Mary Eliza Mahoney

In this series, we will tell nursing stories of influential practitioners who made a difference in the field of nursing.

Born in 1845, Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first black nurse in the United States to complete her professional degree. She worked several years in a hospital before enrolling in the program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, and she was one of only four graduates out of the 42 students who started the program at the same time. Shortly after graduation, Mahoney became one of the first members of the American Nurses Association, or ANA, and helped to establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. Throughout her impressive career, Mahoney helped to distinguish the nursing profession for women of all races.

Establishing Nursing as a Career

Mary Eliza Mahoney was hardly the first black nurse in America. For decades, women of color helped heal the sick and injured. In fact, for 15 years Mahoney worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children before being accepted into their professional training program.

Her legendary bedside manner and calm demeanor won her positions with the most important families along the East Coast. When the majority of trained nurses during the day were treated as house staff, Mahoney refused to be cloistered in servants’ quarters; instead, she ate alongside her patients and their families at their own dinner tables.

She joined the emerging professional organizations of the day and continually pushed for increased memberships of black women with groups like the ANA. For her efforts, Mahoney was elected the chaplain of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1909 and received lifetime membership status.

Furthering Rights for All Women

Throughout her life, Mahoney was an enduring figure in the fight for basic human rights. Her fight to legitimize the role of black women in nursing and to establish nursing as a professional career was largely under the radar of the general public. The impression she left on people was personal, and the waves she made happened as a result of helping families and individuals of great prestige. It wouldn’t be until her older years that she would take a place on the world stage during the fight for women’s suffrage.

At the age 74, Mahoney was one of the first women to register to vote in one of the country’s most influential cities, Boston. She celebrated the passing of the woman’s right to vote in Boston and catapulted to national fame. The move spread her nursing legacy to all corners of the country.

After a short stint running the Howard Orphan Asylum, Mahoney retired in Massachusetts. She developed breast cancer at age 77 and passed away three years later. The woman who had done so much to further opportunities for all women left her mark on the world. Today, visitors and admirers often visit her gravesite, and the ANA gives an award dedicated to her memory to members who focus on easing racial obstacles. Mahoney also earned a place in both the Nursing Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her lifetime devotion to nursing.

Simmons School of Nursing and Health Sciences believes in Mahoney’s vision of making nursing accessible to all people and creating a true profession through the use of qualified training programs. The Nursing@Simmons Master of Science in Nursing program will help more candidates become qualified Family Nurse Practitioners, despite the obstacles facing today’s candidates.