Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska

9-6-1829 to 5-12-1902


A pioneering physician, Zakrzewska was born in Berlin, Germany, the oldest of the five daughters and one son of Martin Ludwig Zakrzewska and his wife, Frederika C. W. Urban Marie's father, of a Polish landed family, was a Prussian army pensioner, having been dismissed for his liberal views; her mother counted among her immediate ancestors gypsies of the Lombardi tribe. At the age of eight, after three years in primary school, Marie Zakrzewska (pronounced Zak-shef-ska)was enrolled in the school for young girls. A good student, but lonely and unpopular, she left after six years, had her father's insistence, toward house work like other German girls.

Marie now spent most her time reading medical works. Several years before, her mother, to help support the growing family, had entered the school for midwives at the Charité hospital in Berlin; for several months Marie had lived with her at the hospital, developing a keen interest in medicine. Soon she was assisting her mother, and at age 18 she applied for admission to the midwives' school. Though refused at first as too young,she came under the favorable notice of a professor, Dr. Joseph HermannSchmidt, who two years later secured her edition, took her as his private pupil, and during her second year made her his teaching assistant. She graduated in 1851; in May of the following year Dr. Schmidt, though ailing and despite strenuous opposition, succeeded in having her installed as chief midwife and professor in the hospital's school for midwives,only a few hours before his death. Miss Zakrzewska was a successful teacher and midwife, but opposition and intrigue against her proved to strong, and after six months she resigned. A year later she emigrated with a younger sister to the United States, having heard of the new Female Medical College in Philadelphia and expecting to find in America greater freedom for women to practice medicine.

the two girls arrived in New York in May, and were joined by third sister in September For nearly a year they lived on the proceeds of a small knitting enterprise. Then, in May 1854, Marie was introduced to Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who was immediately impressed by her visitor's character and potentialities and took her on as a pupil. Dr. Blackwell persuaded Marie that she must learn English and get an M.D. degree, and gained admission for her to the medical department of Western Reserve College (commonly known as the Cleveland Medical College), from which Emily Blackwell had recently graduated One of four women in a class of about tw0 hundred, Miss Zakrzewska matriculated in October 1854. She was welcomed on her arrival in Cleveland by Mrs. Caroline M. Severance, who assisted her financially and became a lifelong friend, in she was cordially received by the dean, Dr. John J. Delamater. Other students in most towns people, however, treated her coldly. In March 1856 she received her M.D. degree. Returning to New York, she could not even rents rooms, so great was the prejudice against women physicians. She finally opened an office that April in Elizabeth Blackwell's back parlor.

Dr. Blackwell and Dr. Zakrzewska were both eager to start a small hospital where women doctors in students might have the opportunity to practice and learn denied them elsewhere To this project Dr. Zakrzewska now devoted herself, seeking funds in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, wherever advanced ideas were discussed. On May 1, 1857, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children opened, the country's first hospital staffed by women. For two years Zakrzewska served as resident physician and general manager, sharing with the Blackwell sisters the care of a growing number of dispensary and bed patients By 1859 the institution seemed firmly established, its success in no small measure owing to the solid practical ability and hard work of Dr. Zakrzewska.

In that year she accepted an offer from the New England Female Medical College of Boston to be professor of obstetrics and diseases of women and children and resident physician of a projected new hospital. Samuel Gregory, a would-be medical reformer who considered "man-midwives" an affront to decency, had founded the college in 1848, primarily to train female practitioners who could give parturient women skilled attendance. Gregory's pamphlets were insulting to regular physicians, he knew nothing about medical education, and his school had a weak faculty of dubious backgrounds. Dr. Zakrzewska's inaugural address strongly urged the importance of good general education and the role of science in medicine. Her views were well above the American average; Gregory were below. Inevitably the two quarreled, and in 1862, increasingly dissatisfied with the school's low standards and its perpetual state of financial crisis under Gregory's control, she resigned.

With the advice and support of a board of lady managers Dr. Zakrzewskahad built up the clinical department of the New England Female Medical College into a small hospital and dispensary for women. When Gregory closed this hospital and disbanded its board upon her departure, many of these women and several of the college trustees backed Dr. Zakrzewska in founding a new institution, the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Opened July 1, 1862, it was incorporated in March 1863. Its three stated purposes were: to provide women with medical aid from competent physicians of their own sex; to provide educated women with an opportunity for practical study in medicine; and to train nurses. With Dr. Zakrzewska freed of the association with Gregory, a few of Boston's leaders in medicine gave consistent encouragement. Most of her support, however, came from outside the profession, particularly from those active in the woman's rights movement. Though not without struggles, the ten- bed hospital grew steadily. In 1864 it moved to larger quarters and in 1872, after a successful fund-raising campaign, to a new site in Roxbury, where the original main building, later named in honor of Dr. Zakrzewska, still stands.

The job of resident physician, initially handled by Dr. Zakrzewska, was soon taken over by Dr. Lucy Sewall and later by other younger women doctors. Dr. Zakrzewska was attending physician until 1887, and then advisory physician. Though ably supported by Board of Directors including Lucy Goddard, Edna D. Cheney, and Samuel E. Sewall, she played the leading role in guiding hospital's development. Because of the prevailing prejudice, Dr. Zakrzewska fell to all the more necessary to give women physicians the best possible training, including hospital experience. This in her opinion was the New England Hospital's most important program. She limited the staff to women, not because she was against coeducation in medicine but because almost no other hospitals admitted women physiciansthe. Herself well-trained and dedicated to her profession, she perceived that neither sentimental sympathy nor a desire for status was an adequate motive for a woman to enter it, but only a talent to practice combined with an interest in scientific investigation. At first some women without degrees studied medicine at the hospital, but after 1881 all resident students were required to be M. D.'s. Many of the ablest women doctors of the time completed their training with an internship at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, where Marie Zakrzewska inspired them with an intense loyalty to her and to the institution. To her more than to any other person, in the opinion of Edna D. Cheney, was due the success of women in medicine in America.

Intelligent, persuasive, an persevering, if somewhat opinionated and quick-tempered, Dr. Zakrzewska had deep human sympathies and a special understanding of the problems of the poor. In her early days in Boston she took on a heavy burden of charity cases, both out of principal and from a desire to establish herself professionally. At first she made her calls on foot, often too distant parts of the city, but in 1865 she acquired a horse and buggy "to uphold the professional etiquette and dignity of a woman physician" (quoted in Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewskathe, Page 17). In time she acquired a substantial private practice. She was plain of appearance, with a generous mouth and prominent nose, but advancing years softened her features and lent dignity to her bearing.

Though most of her energies were devoted to her hospital and medical practice, Marie Zakrzewska was from time to time drawn into other reforms, including the antislavery crusade. While still a student she had met Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips, who later became her close friends. She supported woman suffrage and was one of the first members of the New England Women's club, were she gave a number of lectures on hygiene and related topics. For many years, until his death in 1880, the German radical journalist Carl Heinzen and his wife lived with her in Roxbury. Later she shared her home with Julia A. Sprague, a devoted friend. Essentially a freethinker in religion, Dr. Zakrzewska in her early years had "the bitter contempt for the church and professed Christians" (C. Annette Buckel in Woman's Journal, Nov. 8, 1902). More tolerant as she grew older, she still explicitly denied any belief in an after life. She retired in 1899, having suffered for several years from arteriosclerosis and heart disease, and died three years later of apoplexy at her home in Jamaica Plain, Boston. In lieu of a conventional funeral service, friends gathered at the chapel of Forest Hills Cemetery, where her ashes were interred, to hear a paper she had written for the occasion.

Article ©1971"Notable American Women"
Contributed by John B. Blake

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