Mary Eliza Mahoney: America's First Black Woman to Complete Nursing Training

Learn about America's First Black Nurse to graduate from a nursing training program: Mary Eliza Mahoney. Forty two nursing trainees entered the Training School of Nurses, New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1878. Mary was one of only four to graduate and receive a diploma from the program 16 months later on August 1st, 1879. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, breaking down discriminatory practices and promoting professional nursing for Black women. Mary spent over 40 years providing nursing in the New England area. The American Nurses Association bestows biannually the Mary Mahoney Award to an RN who's significantly impacted the advancement of minority nurses within the nursing profession. Nurses Activism Article




Photo credit:   African American Registry


Mary Eliza Mahoney (May 7, 1845 - January 4, 1926) grew up in the Dorchester area of Boston, Mass. At the age of 18, she started working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children as a maid, cleaning women and cook. In 1878 at age 33, she became a student nurse at this hospital's nursing training program, one of 42 students who entered the program.

This was an extensive nursing education program for the times, spanning 16 months: 12 months in medical, surgical and maternity care and 4 months of private duty nursing in the community. The trainees worked 16 hour days, 6 days a week.

Mahoney was one of the four nurses who received diplomas from the Training School of Nurses, New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1879. (Similar dropout rates exist for many nursing programs in 2020). She is credited as the first African American women to study and work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States.

After registration with the Nurses' Directory at the Massachusetts Medical Library and plenty of positive referrals from clients and patients, Mahoney's reputation for proficiency grew. Her alma mater took note of her success and began admitting other Negro women despite the vicious racism at nursing schools in America. By 1899, her school had produced and graduated five other African-American nurses. 1

In 1896, Mahoney became a member of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada--this professional association later evolved into the American Nurses Association (ANA). This was a significant event, because the organization was predominately white and rarely admitted African American nurses.

She co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Adah B. Thoms in 1908. Fifty-two graduate nurses gathered in NY to create this organization to promote professional nursing care, break down discriminatory practices and promote leadership of Black nurses within the profession. She gave the welcome address at the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses assembly 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. 3

Mahoney worked as a private duty nurse in New England for 30 years. In 1911, she served as supervisor for one year at the Howard Orphan Asylum for Black Children in Kings Park, Long Island. Her career spanned over 40 years.

Mary Mahoney was active in the suffragette movement. After women won the right to vote by passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919, she was one of the first woman to register and vote in Boston in 1920 at age 74. She contracted breast cancer in 1923 and died in 1926.

In 1936, NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award in recognition of her exemplary care and promotion of professional nursing organizations to nurses of all races. The NACGN eventually merged with the American Nurses Association (ANA) in 1951. Since then, ANA has biennially awarded the Mary Mahoney Award for significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities by promoting integration, retention and advancement in nursing for members of minority groups. She was inducted into the A.N.A.'s Hall of Fame in 1976, the first year the Hall of Fame established.

Her grave located in Woodlawn Cemetery Everett, Massachusetts, is the site of national pilgrimages by nurses.

When the 1968 recipient of the Mary Mahoney Award, Helen Sullivan Miller, traveled to Everett, Mass., to visit Mahoney's grave, she could not easily find the marker. So Miller, a prominent nurse educator who later wrote the biography Mary Eliza Mahoney, 1845-1926: America's First Black Professional Nurse--A Historical Perspective (Wright Publishing Co., 1997), led a drive to have a monument built to honor the nursing legend. With the support of Chi Eta Phi Sorority and ANA, the monument was dedicated in 1973. 2

Since 1949, the Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization based in Seattle Washington has provided financial aid and scholarships to students of African heritage who pursue studies leading to careers in professional nursing.

Internet Sources reviewed 5/8/2014:

  1. African American Registry: Nursing Pioneer, Mary Mahoney
  2.  Eyes on the Prize - Minority Nurse
  3.  PBS African American Medical Pioneers: Mary Eliza Mahoney
  4. Find A Grave
  5. Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization

What an amazing woman!!

Wow this is amazing

Specializes in Vents, Telemetry, Home Care, Home infusion.
This is a great article! But it should be "Woman" singular not "Women" plural. That minor issue is repeated through the article. It's still a fantastic story.

Thanks for the "woman" advice --edited title and article.

Specializes in Intensive Care.

Enjoyed reading this, thanks for sharing!

Thank you for posting this! I learned about her years ago while visiting Boston. She has definitely paved the way for minority nurses.

Specializes in Vents, Telemetry, Home Care, Home infusion.

I first became aware of Mary Mahoney RN in my LPN program then later  the hospital I worked at named their Womens Outpatient Center for her.  Hope others can carry on her spirit.

Updated links today. ?

Specializes in retired LTC.

A previous poster, TheCommuter, would freq contribute articles on diff nsg pioneers, particularly those of different ethnicities. She included black nurses, island nurses, and 'healing women' (tech NOT nurses).

As a WOC herself, she was aware of the contributions made by women NOT traditionally known for their nsg history. I always enjoyed her postings - a learning experience.


Specializes in Vents, Telemetry, Home Care, Home infusion.