Black History – Mary Eliza Mahoney
This month, CRCHD staff will be blogging about influential black doctors, scientists, and medical innovators, as well as rising stars from our portfolio. If you would like to nominate someone to be honored, please email CUREsupplements (at) NIH (dot) gov
In 1863, at the age of 18, Mary Mahoney of Boston began to show an interest in nursing. It was the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, and two years prior to the full abolition of slavery, and it was unheard of for a black woman to work as anything other than a domestic servant. But the 5 foot tall, 90 pound Mahoney was determined, and took a position as a maid at the newly opened New England Hospital for Women and Children.
The stated purpose of the New England Hospital was four-fold:
1. To provide for women medical aid of competent physicians of their own sex
2. To assist educated women in the practical study of medicine
3. To train nurses for the care of the sick (a formal nursing program began in 1872)
4. To prove to the world that a woman can be a good physician and a skillful surgeon
Mary worked for fifteen years in various roles: cook, washer woman, and nurses aide, before applying to the 16 month, intensive nursing program. The criteria for admission were simple: young, strong, healthy women of good character and disposition were permitted to attend. Mary was the third black woman to enter the program, but thus far, none had made it through the highly rigorous curriculum. According to the record of Mahoney’s cohort, 40 women applied, 9 withdrew on their own, 13 were deemed unsuitable, and 18 were accepted for the trial period, which required students to work 16 hours per day, 7 days per week, washing, ironing, cleaning, scrubbing, attending lectures, and providing complete care to a ward of six patients. Every morning, students attended rounds with the doctors, who expected the nurses to provide impeccable care to their patients.
Only half of the 18 students passed the first round of trials, and only three received their diplomas that year: two white women, and Mary Mahoney, who passed with distinction, becoming the first African American woman to obtain a nursing degree.
After graduation, Mary worked as a private nurse in the homes of wealthy New England families. “I owe my life to that dear soul,” Mr. Armes, a client, would say, and the two became such good friends that Mary designated him to be her “next of kin.” Sarah Beatty of the New England Hospital wrote, “I used to hear her praises sung everywhere around Boston and suburbs.” Her skillful, calm, efficient manner instilled trust that helped her to overcome many barriers due to her race.
Mahoney worked tirelessly to improve the nursing profession and to promote the inclusion of black women in nursing, actively fighting against the repercussions of slavery and racism throughout her life. In 1909, she gave the first address to the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, a society she co-founded, where she inspired all of the people in the audience and was elected chaplain of the society. Mahoney served as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for black children in Long Island, New York, which cared for children and the elderly, especially those who had been freed after the abolition of slavery.
Mary became seriously ill with breast cancer, and entered the New England Hospital in December of 1925. She was given the most expert medical and nursing care available, but passed away on January 4, 1926, at the age of 80.
In 1936, the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses (and later the American Nurses Association) established the Mary Mahoney Medal to a member of the organization who made an outstanding contribution to nursing, and she was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976. The National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY, added Mahoney to their ranks in 1993. In 2006, the US House of Representatives honored Mahoney in a floor resolution (H.CON.RES.386).
Mahoney inspired generations of nurses. A 1954 article wrote that “Mary Mahoney is honored today not only because she was the first Negro nurse who had the courage to enter a school of nursing side by side with her white sisters, but because this nurse was an outstanding student of her time, an expert and tender practitioner, an exemplary citizen, and an untiring worker in both local and national professional organizations. She was a sound builder for the future, a builder of foundations on which others to follow may safely depend.”