Who Is Mary Eliza Mahoney?

Well, who is Mary Eliza Mahoney and why should we even be interested to know who she is anyway? As a nurse who is fascinated by history and nursing history in particular, I have always been interested in “firsts”. So to answer the question, Mary Mahoney was the first African-American to graduate from a formal nursing school and practice professional nursing.


Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in Boston on May 7, 1845, to parents who moved to the north prior to the Civil War. In her teen years, she became interested in becoming a nurse. At 20, she began work as maid and untrained, practical nurse at the New England Hospital for Women and Children.

When the hospital opened its nursing program (the first in the U.S.) in 1878, Mary Mahoney was accepted along with 40 other students into the first class. The training consisted of 16-hour-per-day ward duty along with day-long class lectures from doctors. In August 1879, she was one of only four of the 40 students who completed the program.

Following graduation, Mary Mahoney provided care to many private clients in their homes. She was noted as a quiet, competent person who was deeply religious. Her clients came from the most prominent Boston and Eastern U.S. families.

Mary Mahoney was widely recognized as a pioneer within nursing. She opened the door of opportunity for many black nurses. She was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) giving the welcoming speech at its first convention in 1909. She was made a lifetime member, exempted from dues and elected its chaplain.

In early 1900’s, Mary Mahoney moved to New York and served as Supervisor of the Howard Orphan Asylum for Black Children. After a 10 year stint, she moved back to Boston where she died in 1925 of breast cancer.

Mary Mahoney worked tirelessly to increase the ability of black women to enter nursing schools. She was also an avowed suffragette. When the Constitutional amendment was ratified allowing women the right to vote in 1920, she was the first women to register to vote in Boston.

Are there other prominent nurses you would like to know about? Let us know!

Ruth Stiehl Ph.D., R.N. – Vice President, Clinical Quality