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Health Care Hero - Mary Mahoney


Many community health centers bear the names of pioneers who devoted their lives to improving access to health care and serving our most vulnerable people. We believe that the stories behind these names are inspiring and instructive and want to share them with our friends and colleagues.

This time we honor Mary Eliza Mahoney, whose name graces the Mary Mahoney Memorial Health Center in Spencer, Oklahoma, and the Mary Mahoney at Langston Health Center in Langston, Oklahoma. Both sites are part of the Community Health Centers of Oklahoma Family Health & Dental Clinics.

We are grateful to Ms. Isabella Lawson, MBA, CEO of Community Health Centers of Oklahoma, and the staff who guide this wonderful community asset. Ms. Mary Eliza Mahoney was born to freed slaves in Massachusetts in 1845. She attended the Phillips School in Boston, one of the first integrated schools there. According to a biographer, Helen Miller, the emphasis on morality and humanity at Philips may have inspired Mahoney’s interest in nursing. During the Civil War, Mahoney witnessed the value of nurses that was becoming more evident.

In 1878, she applied for the nursing program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was the first program in the nation that allowed women into the health care field. Although she was older than the other students, Mahoney probably was accepted into the program because she had worked at the hospital for more than 15 years as a cook, maid, and washerwoman. After intense training, Mahoney graduated in 1879, one of only four graduates among the original 40 students. She was the first woman of color to earn the designation of registered nurse.

Mahoney’s career as a private care nurse spanned many years and fostered a sterling reputation among the families that she served. She hoped to change the way patients and families thought of minority nurses. Mahoney concluded her professional career as Director of the Howard Orphan Asylum on Long Island, retiring in 1912. In addition to becoming one of the original members of the Nurses Associated Alumnae, which later became the American Nurses Association (ANA), Mahoney founded a new, more welcoming nurses’ association. In 1908, she was the co-founder, with Martha Minerva Franklin, of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). In 1920, after women were granted the right to vote, Mahoney was among the first women in Boston to register to vote. She passed away in 1926, at the age of 80 years, after a three-year battle against breast cancer.

The Mary Mahoney Memorial Health Center opened in 1973, with leadership of five women who lived in the Parker’s Heights area. They were Mrs. Lena Jackson, Mrs. Daisy Mitchell, Mrs. Laura Neff, Mrs. Dorothy Smith, and Mrs. Alma Trotter. Since then, the center has served thousands of medical, dental, and social service customers. We salute Ms. Mary Eliza Mahoney for her pioneering work and the vision of the founders of the Mary Mahoney Memorial Health Center, as well as the staff who care for this community today.

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