Nursing, one of the oldest known professions, formally began during the Civil War when more hospitals were being built and before long, nursing became a credentialed profession. During the decades between the Civil War and the start of the twentieth century, many changes would come to the profession along with many advances.
For as much history as has been documented about this fascinating and vital industry, little has been mentioned as to the contributions made by minorities. Below, we'll highlight four courageous minority nurses and the contributions they made to the industry.
Born in 1927 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Hazel Johnson-Brown grew up on a farm with six siblings. By the age of 12, Johnson-Brown knew she wanted to become a nurse, but when she applied to the West Chester School of Nursing, her application was rejected because of her race. Refusing to let the rejection dampen her dream, she moved to New York City where she attended the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in 1947.
In 1955, shortly after President Truman banned discrimination and segregation in the Armed Services, Johnson-Brown joined the Army. She became a staff nurse in Japan and later a chief nurse in Korea. While in the Army, Johnson-Brown earned her master’s degree in nursing education from Columbia University as well as a doctorate in education administration from the Catholic University of America.
After retiring from the Army, Johnson-Brown served as professor of nursing at Georgetown University and at George Mason University in Virginia. She retired in 1997 and continues to serve on multiple university and health administration boards.
Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her mother was a local Jamaican woman, whom Mary learned her nursing skills from, and her father was a Scottish soldier. Because her family was of mixed race, they had limited civil rights, but Seacole would not let this technicality stop her from pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse.
Traveling throughout the Caribbean, Central America and Britain, Seacole learned about traditional medicine and in 1854, traveled to England where she visited the War Office and asked to be sent to the Crimea War as an Army nurse. When she was refused, Seacole funded her own trip to the Crimea where she set up medical quarters for the sick and injured officers. She also visited the battlefields, often under fire, where she tended to the wounded. It is here where she became known as ‘Mother Seacole’ and her reputation rivaled that of Florence Nightingale.
Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first professional black nurse in the United States. Born in 1845 in Boston, she decided to pursue a nursing career and began working at the progressive New England Hospital for Women and Children. Of the 42 nursing students in her class, Mahoney was one of only four to graduate the following year.
Mahoney was one of the first black members of the organization that would eventually come to be known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). However, when the ANA proved to be slow in admitting African-American nurses, Mahoney lent her strong support to the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) and delivered the welcome address at the organization’s first annual convention in 1909.
Mahoney, always concerned with women’s equality, was a strong supporter of the movement to give women the right to vote. In 1920, when the movement finally succeeded in passing the 19th Amendment, she was among the first women in Boston to register to vote at the age of 76.
Mahoney died in 1926 from breast cancer but her efforts for equality lived on. In 1910 there were only about 2,400 African-American women in nursing. Thanks in part to Mahoney, that number more than doubled by 1930.
In 1944, Carmen Lozano Dumler was one of only thirteen Puerto Rican nurses accepted into the Army Nurse Corps (ANC). Her first assignment was at the 161st General Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. From there, the Army sent her to Camp Tortuguero Training Center near Vega Baja where Lazano assisted as an interpreter. She was then stationed at the 395th Station Hospital in Ft. Read, Trinidad where she nursed soldiers who were recovering from wounds suffered at Normandy. Dumler planned to become a doctor when the war was over and began taking correspondence courses toward her medical degree from Louisiana State University.
Nurses like Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton did as much for their patients as they did for the nursing profession in general, and they deserve to be revered. It can also be said that there have been numerous minority nurses throughout history who have also shaped the profession and paved the way for others to follow and because of this, deserve equal recognition and celebration.