Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska was a female physician and teacher, at a time when women were not taken seriously in the field of medicine by their male counterparts. She served as head midwife at the Royal Charite Hospital in Berlin, Germany, then moved to the United States and received a doctor of medicine degree at the all-male Western Reserve College in Cleveland (one of only six women admitted in the 1850s). She held vital positions at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and the New England Female Medical College before opening the New England Hospital for Women and Children. This institution was only the second in America to be run by women physicians, and became the primary training hospital for women physicians, surgeons, and nurses. She also helped found the New England Woman’s Club, and was active in the American Woman Suffrage Association.
Marie was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1829, the eldest of six children. Her grandmother was a veterinary surgeon, and her mother a midwife whom Marie accompanied on her rounds from age thirteen. At twenty she enrolled in midwifery studies at the Royal Charite Hospital where her mother had trained. Not long after she finished her training in 1852, she was promoted to head midwife, mostly due to the support of Joseph Hermann Schmidt, the hospital’s director of the school of midwifery and professor of obstetrics. She remained in that position for only six months when her mentor died, and , protests from faculty members who had disapproved of her promotion led to her dismissal. She then moved to the United States to study medicine and pursue further opportunities.
Arriving in New York in 1852, Marie at first found little support for a career in medicine; but she met and befriended Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive a medical degree (1849). Dr. Blackwell encouraged her to enroll at Cleveland’s Western Reserve College, a traditionally all-male medical school, and in 1854 she did just that. She received her doctor of medicine degree in 1856, but struggling to find work she joined the fundraising effort of her friend Dr. Blackwell, who with her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell was planning to open a hospital for women and children that would also provide training opportunities and work for women physicians. The New York Infirmary for Women and Children opened on May 12, 1857, and Dr. Zakrzewska served as resident physician there for two years.
In March 1859 Dr. Zakrzewska moved to Boston to serve as professor of obstetrics at the New England Female Medical School. She struggled to find clinical experience for her students and also clashed with Dr. Samuel Gregory, the founder of the school, over the curriculum (she wanted to expand it to match the all-male schools’ teachings; Dr. Gregory wanted to confine it to midwifery). In 1862 she resigned from the school to launch her own hospital, the New England Hospital for Women and Children.
The new hospital was the first in Boston and only the second in America to be run by women physicians. It served as a training hospital for several generations of women physicians, surgeons, and nurses. It grew rapidly, holding annual fundraisers, and in 1872opened the first professional nurse-training program in the country. Dr. Zakrzewska died in 1902 at the age of seventy-three, having run the hospital successfully for forty years. The hospital continues to serve patients to this day as the Dimock Community Health Center.
- Harvard University. “Dr. Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (1829-1902).” Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Accessed January 16, 2017. http://www.ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww/zakrzewska.html#pubs.
- Changing the Face of Medicine. “Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska.” Changing the Face of Medicine. Last updated June 3, 2015; accessed January 16, 2017. http://www.cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_338.html.
CYNTHIA KRAMER is a writer living on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.