African American Medical Pioneers: Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)
Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first black professional nurse in America, and an active organizer among African American nurses. She was born in Boston, on May 7, 1845, the oldest of three children. At the age of 18, she decided to pursue a career in nursing, working at the progressive New England Hospital for Women and Children. In 1878, at age 33, she was accepted in that hospital's nursing school, the first professional nursing program in the country. Of the 42 students who started that year, Mahoney was one of just four who graduated the next year. The training required 12 months in the hospital's medical, surgical, and maternity wards, lectures and instruction by doctors on the ward, as well as four months of work as a private-duty nurse.
After graduation, Mahoney registered for work as a private-duty nurse. Families that employed Mahoney praised her calm and quiet efficiency. Her professionalism helped raise the status of all nurses. At a time when nurses were often assigned domestic chores as well as nursing duties, she refused to take her meals with household staff. As he reputation spread, Mahoney received requests from patients as far away as New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina.
Mahoney was one of the first black members of the organization that later became the American Nurses Association (A.N.A.). When that later organization proved slow to admit black nurses, Mahoney strongly supported the establishment of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (N.A.C.G.N.), and delivered the welcome address at that organization's first annual convention, in 1909. In that speech, Mahoney recognized the inequalities in nursing education and called for a demonstration at the New England Hospital to have more African American students admitted. The conference members responded by electing her to be association chaplain and giving her a lifetime membership.
For over a decade after that, Mahoney helped recruit nurses to joint the organization. In 1911 she took the helm at the Howard Orphan Asylum in New York, and served there for over a year.
Mahoney was deeply concerned with women's equality and a strong supporter of the movement to gain women the right to vote. When that movement succeeded with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, she was among the first women in Boston to register to vote -- at the age of 76.
Mahoney contracted breast cancer in 1923 and died in 1926. Her grave in Everett, Massachusetts, is the site of national pilgrimages. In 1936, the N.A.C.G.N. established an award in her honor (later continued by the A.N.A.) to raise the status of black nurses. She was inducted into the A.N.A.'s Hall of Fame in 1976.
The effort for equality that Mahoney launched continued. From about 2,400 in 1910, the number of African American women in nursing had more than doubled by 1930, four years after Mahoney's death.
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