A snapshot biography of Mary Eliza Mahoney

Vintage black and white oval portrait of Mary Eliza Mahoney with her hair neatly combed back, wearing a white bonnet with a ruffled trim, large hoop earrings, and a high-collared blouse adorned with a bow scarf at the neck.

Mary Eliza Mahoney stood about five feet tall and weighed ninety pounds. In personality, she was calm and focused, dedicated to her work, and unafraid to stand for principles of equality. Peopled deeply respected and admired her. As one person said about Mary, “I used to hear her praises sung everywhere around Boston and the suburbs.”

Mary was born in 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the eldest child of formerly enslaved parents. She grew up with much attention put on her education. At ten years old, the Phillips school, an integrated school in Boston, accepted Mary. There she studied in a curriculum that included teachings on morality and humanity alongside traditional subjects such as English, History, and Math. And it is likely there that an early interest in nursing developed.

As a teenager, Mary became interested in nursing. She began working in a hospital in several roles over about fifteen years, including as a nurse’s aide. Then, at 33 years old, she started the graduate nursing program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. The program, 16 months long, was rigorous with study and work. Of 42 students who started the program, she was one of three to graduate, the first Black professional nurse in the United States. She then worked for about forty years as a private-duty nurse employed by families.

Beyond her everyday work as a nurse, Mary was passionate about eliminating racial discrimination in nursing and bringing more Black workers into the profession. And she was also passionate about equality for women. At the age of 76, Mary became one of the first women in Boston to register to vote after the 19th Amendment was passed.

Mary passed away in 1926 after a three-year battle with cancer.


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Sources: 

  • “African American Medical Pioneers: Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845–1926)”. PBS. Archived from the original on March 10, 2017. Retrieved February 26, 2021.
  • Chayer, Mary Ella. “Mary Eliza Mahoney.” The American Journal of Nursing, vol. 54, no. 4, 1954, pp. 429–431. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3460941. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.