Historic Nurses | Mary Eliza Mahoney

2020 is the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife.

In celebration, we’re continuing our exploration of nursing history and the individuals that defined it. Today, we honor the life of Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African American licensed nurse.

Read on to learn more about Mary’s remarkable contributions to the field of nursing.

Humble Beginnings

Mary Eliza Mahoney was born on May 7, 1845, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Mary’s parents have freed slaves, and she became aware of racial inequality and the atrocities of slavery at an early age. As a child, she attended the Phillips School in Boston, which became one of the first integrated schools in the country in 1855.

By the time she was a teenager, Mary knew she wanted to become a nurse. She began her nursing education at the New England Hospital for Women and Children.

Nursing Education

The New England Hospital for Women and Children was unique – all of its physicians were female. This was a source of inspiration for Mary, cultivating her passion and drive to become a trained medical professional.

Mary worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for 15 years in a variety of roles. She was a custodian, cook, and “washer woman.” In 1878, at the age of 33, Mary began training at the hospital’s school of nursing.

The hospital’s nursing program was one of the first of its kind in the country and was very challenging. 42 students entered the program in its first year, and only 4 graduated. Mary was one of those 4 exceptional students, making her the first African American in the nation to earn a professional nursing license.  

Challenges & Triumphs

After graduating, Mary encountered vicious discrimination while trying to enter the workforce. Determined to prevail over the toxic environment of the Reconstruction Era, she shifted her focus to caring for private clients.

For many years, Mary cared for wealthy families along the East Coast. She became known for her patient, compassionate bedside manner and exceptional skill.

Making a Difference

One of Mary’s defining qualities was her pursuit of equality and justice.

In 1896, she joined the American Nurses Association (ANA). At the time, the ANA was comprised primarily of white members. Mary was met with more discrimination.

As a result, she co-founded the National Associated of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908. The following year, Mary gave the opening speech at the association’s first national convention. She was then elected to be the national chaplain and received a lifetime membership.

In 1911, Mary became the director of an orphanage for African American children in New York. In 1920, after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, she was one of the first women to register to vote in Boston.

Between 1910 and 1930, Mary dedicated much of her life to advocating for social justice and equality. During this time, the number of African-American nurses in the United States doubled.


After spending 40 years as a nurse, Mary retired in 1918. In 1926, she died from breast cancer at the age of 81.

She is known as a pioneer in the field of nursing, tirelessly advocating for racial equality and women’s rights for her entire life. In 1936, the NACGN created the Mary Mahoney Award, given every two years to nurses “who have made outstanding contributions to opening and advancing opportunities in nursing to members of minority groups.”

In 1973, a monument was constructed in Mary’s honor at her gravesite in Everett, Massachusetts.

Become a Nurse Pioneer with GIFTED Healthcare

GIFTED hopes to carry on the heroic legacy of Mary Mahoney and other legendary nurses by providing service and support for clinicians everywhere.

Make a difference in your life and the lives of others as a travel nurse at GIFTED Healthcare!

Learn more or apply now to join the GIFTED family!

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