Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska


Marie Zakrzewska was born in Germany in 1829. Her mother worked in Berlin as a midwife. Marie also was being trained in midwifery and had a teaching position for a while. She emigrated to the United States in 1853, after her mentor died, and she was forced to resign.

For the first year in the U.S. she worked as a home contract worker in knitting. A year later, she met Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who helped her gain admission to Cleveland Medical College (Western Reserve), from which her sister, Emily Blackwell, graduated previously. After completing a two-year course, Zakrzewska joined the Blackwells in New York, where together they planned to open a hospital and a medical school for women. Marie Zakrzewska traveled to Philadelphia and to Boston seeking funds for this project. She proved to be very adept at fund-raising and the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (now Beth Israel Medical Center) was established in 1857.

In 1859, Dr. Zakrzewska moved to Boston to teach at the New England Female Medical College, which was essentially a school of midwifery. Dissatisfied with the level of medical education offered at the school, she convinced the Board of Lady Managers to open a new teaching hospital. The New England Hospital for Women and Children opened in 1862 (now Dimock Community Health Center). It started out as a ten-bed hospital, but grew so quickly that another building was constructed a decade later. The hospital had an all-female staff. A black physician, Dr. Caroline Still was invited to do her internship there. In 1872 the hospital opened the first professional nursing school in the country. Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first trained black nurse in the country, graduated from this school in 1879.

Dr. Zakrzewska's goal was to run a medical college for women that was superior to medical schools for male students. By 1881, her school was so renowned that she could limit her resident students to those women who already had their M.D. degrees.

In addition to teaching, Dr. Zakrzewska had a strong private practice in gynecology. Dr. "Zak" was a familiar figure in her horse and buggy visiting patients around Boston. In 1887, she reduced her work load, but continued as a consulting physician until the age seventy. Dr. Marie Zakrzewska died in 1902. A year after her death, The New England Hospital for Women and Children published a memoir of her life.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1996.

1. American Women's History by Doris Weatherford, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994
2. Susan B. Anthony Slept Here. A Guide to American Women's Landmarks by Lynn Sherr and Jurate Kazickas, Random House, 1994

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