Mary Ezra Mahoney was born in the Spring of 1845 in Boston, Massachusetts where she spent most of her life. Mahoney was eager to encourage greater equality for African Americans and women and so she pursued a nursing career which supported these aims. In her teens, she began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. There she experienced a wide variety of roles and even the opportunity to work as a nurse’s aide.
At the age of 33 she was admitted to the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing. Due to the intensity of the nursing program, many students were not able to complete the program. Of the 42 students that entered the program only four completed it in 1879, Mahoney was one of them. Thus making her the first African American in the US to earn a professional nursing license.
After graduation, Mahoney decided to pursue a career in private nursing to focus on the care needs of individual clients and to step away from the overwhelming discrimination in the public nursing sector. Mahoney was an active participant in the nursing profession and soon joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), which later became known as the American Nurses Association (ANA).
After experiencing life as an active participant in the professional nursing field and the struggles of discrimination along with it, Mahoney felt that a group was needed which advocated for the equality of African American nurses so in 1908 she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.
After decades as a private nurse, Mahoney became the director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for black children in Kings Park. She finally retired from nursing after 40 years in the profession however, she continued to fight for women’s rights. In fact, Mahoney was among the first women who registered to vote in Boston after the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920.
Mahoney lived a long and successful 80 years of life. After three years of battling breast cancer, she died on January 4, 1926.
Mahony’s bright pioneering spirit has been recognized with several awards and memorials. In 1936, the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses founded the Mary Mahoney Award in honor of her achievements and continues to be awarded today by the American Nurses Association. This award is given to nurses or groups of nurses who promote integration within their field. The AHA further honored Mahoney in 1976 by inducting her into their Hall of Fame. And in 1993 Mahoney joined another esteemed group of women when she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Today there are approximately 440,000 African American RNs and LPNs, according to Minority Nurse, thanks in part to Mahoney’s trailblazing career path.