Numerous African-American nurses helped to shape nursing into what it is today. These individuals faced a range of barriers, rising above enslavement, racism, discrimination, poverty, and other seemingly insurmountable challenges in their pursuit of nursing. While an exhaustive list of these contributors is impossible, we’ve chosen to honor a few individuals by name in the spirit of Black History Month.
Four African-American Nurses Whose Names You Should Know
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) – First Licensed African-American Nurse in the US
Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, which meant she was born free. She developed an early love of nursing, and by the age of 20, Mahoney was practicing as an untrained nurse’s assistant. Pay was poor, and she supplemented her earnings with janitorial duties at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. After 15 years of this situation, Mahoney was accepted into the New England Hospital’s graduate nursing program. The training was grueling, including 16 hour shifts on ward duty overseeing six patients at a time. Mahoney was one of only four students out of 42 enrolled to graduate from the 16-month program. With this accomplishment, Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first African-American in the United States to hold a professional nursing license. She practiced nursing for the next forty years, primarily in private practice due to the discrimination faced by black women in the workplace.
Harriet Tubman (1822 -1913) – Freedom Fighter, Herbal Healer, and Caretaker of the Elderly
Harriet Tubman, born into slavery around 1820, escaped to the North – and freedom – in 1849. Rather than staying safely outside of Southern slave owners’ reach, Tubman made repeated trips into the Deep South in order to help other slaves escape using the network known as the “Underground Railroad.” Her incredible heroism led to freedom for more than 300 individuals. Tubman’s service to humankind did not stop there. Throughout the Civil War, Tubman served as a Union scout, spy, and nurse. Her knowledge of herbal remedies allowed her to ease the suffering of soldiers when traditional medicine was unavailable. After the war, Harriet Tubman cared for the elderly in her home until procuring the funds for the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged.
James Derham (1762- 182?) – was the first African American to formally practice medicine in the United States as both a nurse and physician.
James Derham was born into slavery in Philadelphia, Derham eventually served under Dr. John Kearsley, who taught him about compound medicine, professional bedside manner, and the basics of throat medicine. He was then transferred two more times before receiving his freedom in New Orleans and opening up his own practice, the first documented medical practice run and owned by an African American.
Betty Smith Williams (1929-present)
Dr. Betty Smith Williams is a lifetime educator with over 50 years of teaching and research experience. She was the first African American nurse hired as an educator in higher education in the state of California. She was a professor at Mount Saint Mary’s College, UCLA, and California State Long Beach; Assistant Dean at the School of Nursing at UCLA; Dean and professor at the School of Nursing at University of Colorado Health Sciences Center; and, the Founding Dean at the School of Nursing at the American University of Health Sciences. She was also a co-founder and charter member of the National Black Nurses Association in 1971.
The legacies of these inspiring nurses have had a lasting impact. Their effects can be felt in the establishment of formal nursing education, in greater representation in the nursing field, in higher standards of patient care…the list goes on. Their selfless attitudes in the face of hardship and, frequently, of hatred raise them to the level of nursing heroes.