Jennifer Rusnanto: Mary Eliza Mahoney


                                                                       Mary Eliza Mahoney

       The goal of nursing is to help provide optimal health care for patients and their families, and nurse leaders are at the forefront of making sure this happens. To be an effective leader, one needs courage, support, and take initiative. With these qualities, a nurse can lead an integrated health care team. To change the health care system for better care, a leader needs to encourage others to be advocates and be compassionate to their patients.  Also, a leader needs to support their staff both emotionally and physically.  He/she needs to take the initiative in planning, setting goals, and implementing strategies. Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American nurse leader. This paper will further discuss her challenges she encounter that help changed the view of minorities in nursing in 1850’s and today.


       Mary Eliza Mahoney was an advocate dedicated to making a difference in the minority community. She lived to be the example for minorities and became the first African American licensed Registered Nurse.  In 1878, Mahoney fought to enter the toughest nursing program in New England Hospital for Women and Children. In order to apply to the program you had to be Caucasian, pass a fitness exam, and be a certain religion. She fought to enter the program, but felt worthless as an individual because she was the only colored person competing. She proved to everyone in the

 program after graduation that colored people are intelligent, strong, and powerful.  Upon graduating she worked at a private care practice and her work was recognized for her talent and compassion. She left a lasting impression on her patients who continued to write positive comments about her.  After Mahoney graduated, New England Hospital for Women and Children accepted more colored people into their nursing program. This paved the way for greater equality in the nursing field and prompted the unity of majority and minority culture in performing their duties as quality health care providers as a cohesive group.  Mahoney was given the title of Chaplain because of her drive to change the status quo of minorities in the nursing field (Doona, 1986).  Mahoney is an excellent example of a leader, as demonstrated by her perseverance and professionalism in an otherwise negative environment.

Mahoney lived during the era of the Civil War. There was only a handful of nursing schools across the United States, and even with access to these schools, they were limited to the Whites.  Even smaller in number were the schools that held Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) classes for minorities. Mahoney struggled through the adversity that came with being in an environment that has historically excluded colored people.  Even though she felt like an outsider, she made a difference in society and proved that nursing is a passion from within that cannot be suppressed by color barriers.  Her compassion for the sick and her ability to provide the most optimal health care to each and every one of her patients was not defined by her skin color. In light of her struggle through nursing school, Mahoney realized that nurses of color needed an organization to bring them together and serve as a support system. As a result, she co-founded National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908.  The goal of the organization was to advocate for more educated training opportunities

for people of color and to promote racial integration in nursing.  In 1936, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney award that recognized her outstanding example to all nurses (Wessling, 2006).  During this time she played a pivotal role in racially integrating the health care system. She advocated for equality through her passion and belief that passion and intelligence are not defined by skin color.

Mahoney gained further recognition in 1974, when the Community Health Project, Inc opened the Mary Mahoney Center in her honor. The Center provided easily accessible health care to isolated areas in parts of the United States.  The first location opened in rural Oklahoma. The commission made from the center provided grants for nursing education for African American, Spanish-speaking, and Indian Americans future nurses (Mahoney, 1974).

                                                          Nursing Today

Mary Eliza Mahoney has inspired the African American community to have a bigger vision and to become leaders themselves. For example, Hazel Johnson Brown and Clara Adams-Ender both assumed the role of Chief of the Army Nurse Corps with the rank of Brigadier General (Carnegie, 1991).  Both

were influenced by Mahoney’s story and felt that anything is possible and color should not play a role in leadership skills.  Today, people of color are accepted in the community with equality and respect.  Nursing schools across the United States are not defined by racial terms, but are based on knowledge and passion.  The U.S congress honored  Mahoney for “an outstanding nursing career, dedication to the U.S. nursing profession and exemplary contributions to local and national professional nursing organizations”(Chwedyk, 2006,  p. 8). Mahoney helped changed the view of nursing today and her legacy will always continue through her existing contributions with education, scholarships, and through her health care center.


    In conclusion, Mary Eliza Mahoney achieved her goal of leaving her mark and making a difference in the field of nursing. Her leadership, drive, and ambition changed the way nurses are viewed from the middle of the 1880’s up until the present day.  In 1880’s, African American nurses only served people of color.  They were viewed as incapable of completing higher nursing education.  They were trained with minimal education of a diploma in order to care for people of their own color.  Mahoney changed this view when she graduated one of the toughest nursing schools as the only African American student.  She shattered racial stereotypes about African Americans in the health care field by proving that she could provide care at equal and sometimes superior levels than that of her Caucasian peers. Every single private client she had wrote positive comments and asked her to return. Because of pioneers like Mahoney, we no longer face discrimination based on color lines in nursing. There are nursing leaders who, like Mahoney, are managers, educators, and congressmen.  They want to contribute to the field in significant ways, and it is because of leaders like this that the nursing field has risen to the levels and high standards that we have today.


Carnegie, M.E. (1991). Black Nurses in the United States: 1879-1992.  In The path we tread (2nd ed.). New 

        York: National League for Nursing. Retrieved     from


(Carnegie, 1991)

Chwedyk, P. (2006). Vital signs. Congress honors African American Nursing pioneer Mary Mahoney. Minority

     Nurse, 8. Retrieved from


(Chwedyk, 2006)

Doona, M.E. (1986). Glimpses of Mary Eliza Mahoney (7 May 1845 -4 January 1929). Journal of Nursing 

    History: A Publication of the Nursing Archives Associates at Boston University, 1(2), 20-34. Retrieved 


(Doona, 1986)

Mary Mahoney. (1974). Mary Mahoney health center: Providing total health care services. The American Nurse,

     6(10), 18. Retrieved from Mary+Mahoney+health+center

(Mahoney, 1974)

Wessling, S. (2006). Eyes on the prize. Minority Nurse, 34-39. Retrieved from http://www.minoritynurse.


(Wessling, 2006)



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NRSG 309,
Dec 5, 2013, 2:53 AM