Mary Eliza Mahoney, R.N.: America’s First Professionally Trained Black Nurse, Civil Rights Activist, and Women’s Rights Activist (May 7, 1845-January 4, 1926)


This is Mary Eliza Mahoney. She is the first Black Woman in the United States to become a professionally trained nurse. In 1879, Mary graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Mary was born in 1845 to Charles and Mary Jane Mahoney of Roxbury, Massachusetts. She was the oldest of three children. Much is not known about Mary’s life before she enrolled into nursing school, but before becoming a student she was employed at the hospital as a maid-of-all-work.

Mary decided to pursue a career in nursing at age 18 while working at New England Hospital for Women and Children. This hospital has the reputation of having the country’s first professional nursing program.  At age 33, Mary enrolled in the New England Hospital for Women and Children on March 26, 1878. Mary worked very, very hard. She withstood the pressure of the nursing program’s very rigorous and strict standards: 12 months working within the hospital’s maternity,  surgical, and medical wards, four months of private duty, and many lectures and bedside instructions by a doctor. Out of the 42 nursing trainees accepted into the program, only Mary and three other women received their nursing degree.


After her graduation, Mary became employed as a private-duty nurse. She was employed by the some of the elite families in Boston and was praised for her calm efficiency and charming personality. Because of her good character, Mary was called by patients from as far away as North Carolina, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., to care for them. Despite blatant racism, Mary’s professionalism and good character raised the status for ALL nurses and her hard work and perseverance paved the way for future Black nurses.

Mary also became a member of the ANA (American Nurses Association), being one of the first and few Black members. In 1908, Mary became a member of the NACGN (National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses). She supported the establishment of the NACGN because of the ANAs slow recruiting of more Black Nurses. She was happy about the establishment of the organization because she was troubled by the country’s good schools’ refusal to enroll Black Americans. Mary gave the welcome address at the NACGN’s first annual meeting.  In that speech, she called out the inequalities within nursing programs across the country and called for more admittance of African-American Women in nursing starting with her alumni. The NACGN also elected her as chaplain and gave her a lifetime membership. Mary helped recruit many new members to the new organization as a frequent attendee through 1921.

Mary also was a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage. After the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, she became one of Boston’s first Black Women to vote at 76. Mary became ill with breast cancer in 1923 and passed away in 1926 at the age of 81 at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Mary’s final resting place in a Everett, Massachusetts cemetery is a site of national pilgrimages.


In Mary’s honor for her hard work, achievement, and for making history as America’s first Black professionally trained nurse, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936. This award is given to recipients for outstanding contributions to intergroup relations by the ANA. Mary was inducted into the ANA’s hall of fame in 1976.

Mary’s historical achievement as America’s first professionally trained Black Nurse has helped propel a rise of Black Nurses from 2,400 Black Nurses in 1910 to more than double that by 1930.

I salute this AMAZING HER-story making  sista!


PBS: The American Experience. (2003). African-American Medical Pioneers: Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926). Retrieved from

Empak Enterprises. (1984). A Salute to Historic Black Women. Empak Enterprises, Inc.: Chicago.


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