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The First American Nurse

Mary Eliza Mahoney was born May 7, 1845 in Dorchester Massachusetts. Her parents were freed slaves originally from North Carolina, who moved before Civil War occured to avoid racial discrimination. She was the oldest of four siblings with one sibling who passed. Mahoney was enrolled into Phillips School at the age of 10, one of the first integrated schools in Boston. She attended from the first to the fourth grade. Phillips school was known for teaching the value of morality and basic subjects such as , English , History and more . The school was actually a part of what influenced Mahoney to be a nurse.

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Mahoney knew that she wanted to become a nurse. She was admitted into a 16 month program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children at the age of 33 along with 39 others. The NEHWC was the first institution to offer a program allowing women to work in the healthcare industry. The purpose for the program was to choose 40 women between ages of 21 to 31 to have a good reputation as to character and deposition. Although Mary did not meet age criteria, her connections to the hospital due to prior work as a cook, maid, and washerwoman when she was 18 years of age, they accepted her. Mahoney worked nearly 16 hours daily for the 15 years that she worked as a laborer. Mahoneys training required that she spent at least one year in one of the hospitals wards to gain knowledge about nursing. She worked at 5:30 A.M to 9:30 P.M shift which required her to attend lectures and lessons in order to educate herself through the instruction of the doctors.

In addition, Mahoney worked for several months as a private-duty nurse. The nursing program allowed for the students to earn a weekly wage, ranging from 1 to 4 dollars, after their first two weeks of work.

Three quarters of the program consisted of the nurses working within a surgical, maternity or medical ward with six patients they were responsible caring for. The last two months of the extensive 16-month long program required the nurses to use their newfound knowledge and skills in environments they were not accustomed to; such as hospitals or private family homes. After completing these requirements, Mahoney graduated in 1879 as a registered nurse alongside 3 other colleagues — the first black woman to do so in the United States. In retirement, Mahoney was still concerned with women’s equality and a strong supporter of women’s suffrage. She actively participated in the advancement of civil rights in the United States.In 1920, after women’s suffrage was achieved in the U.S., Mahoney was among the first women in Boston to register to vote.

In 1923, Mahoney was diagnosed for breast cancer and battled the illness for 3 years until she died on January 4, 1926, at the age of 80. Her grave is located in Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts. In recognition of her outstanding example to nurses of all races, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936. When NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association in 1951, the award was continued. Today, the Mary Mahoney Award is bestowed biennially by the ANA in recognition of significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities in nursing for members of minority groups. Mahoney was inducted into the ANA’s Hall of Fame in 1976. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

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