Never neglected again: Mary Eliza Mahoney, who opened doors in nursing

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries of notable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In 1878, about 40 applicants applied for the nursing program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. Only nine were admitted, and after 16 demanding months, only three of them would have graduated. Mary Eliza Mahoney, widely regarded as America’s first trained black nurse, graduated.

At the time, domestic service was virtually the only job opportunity for a black woman; indeed, the hospital first employed Mahoney as a maid. But she persevered, spending 16 hours a day, seven days a week, ironing, scrubbing and cleaning before working her way through the nursing program.

“She cooked and washed and scrubbed and – she came in,” said a family friend, identified only as Miss Hawley, quoted in the American Journal of Nursing in 1954. “A female doctor wanted her there, and that was the only influence she had.

At just five feet tall and 90 pounds, Mahoney was a lightweight but hardworking student. The standards of the program were high and few passed; of the approximately 40 candidates in 1878, nine withdrew, 13 were found unfit, and nine of the 18 who had been accepted for trial were not admitted. Mahoney’s sister Ellen also attempted to complete the program, but failed the final exam.

Mahoney’s guiding motto was: “Work harder and better in the coming year than the year before.”

After graduating, she became a private nurse, caring primarily for wealthy white patients whom she considered family. Many have sought his care. “I owe my life to this dear soul,” one patient reportedly said in the 1954 article.

Her success opened doors for future generations of black women in nursing, and she would devote the rest of her career to making the profession more accessible, including through her role as one of the first black members of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, now the American Nurses Association. (A survey published in The Journal of Nursing Regulation found that 6.7% of nurses nationwide in 2020 were black.)

Mary Ella Chayer, a former professor of nursing at Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote of Mahoney in 1954: “This nurse was an outstanding student of her time, an expert and tender practitioner, an exemplary citizen, and a tireless worker in both local and national organizations. She was a solid builder for the future, a builder of foundations on which others to follow can safely rely.

Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in 1845 in Dorchester, Mass., which was later annexed by Boston. She was the eldest of three children of Charles and May Jane (Stewart) Mahoney, who were believed to have been enslaved in North Carolina before being freed.

Mahoney entered first grade at age 10, attending Phillips School after it became one of Boston’s first desegregated public schools.

Mahoney was 17 when German-born physician Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children with the aim of providing women with the opportunities and skills needed in the medical profession, which at the time was generally reserved to men. It was the second hospital in America to be run by women—its entire staff was female—and the first to formally train nurses in the medical, midwifery, surgical, and pediatric departments.

Mahoney then enrolled in the Massachusetts Medical Library’s Register of Nurses, again becoming the first black person to do so. But, according to her account, she decided against a career in public nursing to avoid facing discrimination and instead worked independently.

In 1908, she helped start the National Association of Colored Registered Nurses, formed in response to the exclusion of black nurses by other national organizations. She gave the welcoming address at the group’s first national convention in Boston in 1909. Two years later, the association gave Mahoney a lifetime membership and named her its national chaplain.

Between 1911 and 1912 Mahoney was the supervisor of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn.

A longtime advocate for women’s suffrage, she helped bring about another historic event when women won the right to vote in 1920; at 76, she was one of the first women to enroll.

She learned she had breast cancer in 1923 and died at New England Hospital on January 4, 1926. She was 80 years old.

In the nearly 100 years since his death, Mahoney has received many accolades. In 1936, the Colored Graduate Nurses Association created the Mary Mahoney Prize, awarded to a nurse or a group of nurses who promote integration into the profession. Although the association ceased operations in 1958, the award is still given today by the American Nurses Association.

In 1973, one of the recipients, Helen Sullivan Miller, led a campaign to have a memorial erected at Mahoney’s grave in Everett, Mass., with support from the ANA and Chi Eta Phi, a national sorority for professional and student nurses. Mabel Staupers, another award recipient, designed the stone.

Mahoney was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976 and the Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY in 1993.

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