Zakrzewska, Marie (1829-1902)
Marie Zakrzewska (1829-1902)
Early female physician
Pioneering Role in Medicine. Marie Zakrzewska, an influential New England physician, played an important role in opening the field of medicine to women. After re-zewska worked with other female physicians to establish women’s hospitals in the United States. She founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1862 and became a well-known physician in New England. Throughout her life she lobbied for the equal treatment of women in medicine. She was also active in the woman’s rights movement and, in the antebellum years, the antislavery movement, where she became close friends with William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and other radical abolitionists.
Medical Studies in Germany. Of Polish ancestry but born in Berlin, Germany, in 1829, Zakrzewska was no stranger to medicine: her maternal grandmother had been a veterinary surgeon, and her mother practiced midwifery in Berlin. At fifteen Zakrzewska spent six weeks nursing her aunt and great-aunt and formed a desire to pursue medicine as a career. She enrolled at the Berlin School for Midwives in 1849 and in May 1852 was appointed chief director of the Charité Hospital, as well as the major professor of the School for Midwives. Because of her sex Zakrzewska’s appointments generated intense debate and opposition among university and city officials. Continued opposition caused Zakrzewska to resign her positions in the fall of 1852.
Immigration to the United States. In March 1853 Zakrzewska and her younger sister Anna left Berlin for the United States. Zakrzewska had heard about the Pennsylvania Female Medical College, and she hoped that the climate for female doctors would be more hospitable in America than in Europe. Although their destination was Philadelphia, the sisters temporarily settled in New York City, where two more sisters and a brother soon joined them. There Marie Zakrzewska learned of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the modern world. Blackwell had graduated from the Geneva Medical College in 1849; in 1854 her sister Emily received an M.D. from the same institution. That same year the New York legislature granted the Blackwell sisters a charter to establish the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. Elizabeth Blackwell became a mentor to Zakrzewska, working with her in the dispensary and teaching her English. Blackwell also helped secure Zakrzewska’s admission to Cleveland Medical College, part of Western Reserve College; the medical school had begun admitting female students in 1847.
The Importance of Hospitals. Zakrzewska completed her medical degree in 1856 and returned to New York City, where, in the spring of 1857, she helped Elizabeth Blackwell expand the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children from a dispensary into a full hospital—the first hospital in the United States run and staffed entirely by women. Zakrzewska occupied several posts at the hospital, including resident physician, instructor of students, superintendent, and housekeeper. She also established a successful private practice in the city. In 1859 she accepted a position as professor of obstetrics at the New England Female Medical College in Boston, but she resigned in 1861 because she believed that the college’s standards were too low and because the trustees failed to respond to her requests for the establishment of a college-based hospital.
The New England Hospital for Women and Children. A year after resigning her post at the New England Female Medical College, Zakrzewska opened a ten-bed hospital in a rented house in Boston. The purposes of the institution were to promote the training of female physicians and nurses, while offering medical care for women and children. The facility eventually grew into the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Zakrzewska oversaw the administration of the institution, and for a time she served as resident physician and head nurse. Her involvement with the New England Hospital for Women and Children lasted almost four decades. She also continued her private practice. In 1899, at seventy, Zakrzewska retired. She died in 1902.
Agnes C. Vietor, A Woman s Quest: The Life of Marie E. Zakrzewska, M.D. (New York: Appleton, 1924).
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