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Remembering Dr. Marie Zakrzewska M.D.

Author: Katarzyna Litak, M.D.

Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (1829-1902), affectionately known as Dr. Zak, was a pioneering physician of Polish-German descent and an immigrant who made significant contributions to the field of medicine. Among her remarkable achievements was the establishment of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the first dedicated women's hospital in the United States.

Dr. Zakrzewska's influence extended beyond New York, as she played a crucial role in founding the Women's Hospital of Philadelphia. Additionally, she contributed to the establishment of the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston, which was the first hospital in the city and the second in the entire United States to be operated by women physicians and surgeons.

"I am not a great personage, either through inherited qualifications or through the work that I have to show to the world," said Dr. Zakrzewska in her memoir, as she reflected on her humble beginnings in Berlin, Kingdom of Prussia (now Germany), to parents with a rich medical heritage.

Her father, Ludwig Martin Zakrzewski, belonged to the Polish nobility, while her mother, Caroline Fredericke Wilhelmina Urban, was a skilled midwife.

Marie displayed a remarkable sense of observation and curiosity from a young age. However, her school years were fraught with challenges and difficulties, which suggests that her path to success was not without obstacles.

"They called me unruly because I would not arbitrarily obey demands without being given a reason, and obstinate because I insisted on following my own will when I knew I was right."

As a teenager, Marie was exceptional. She started accompanying her mother on her midwifery rounds at the age of 13. After achieving the highest grade in school, she was placed with the boys as a punishment, but she expressed that "playing with them, I felt merry, frank, and self-possessed."

Before reaching the age of 20, Marie Zakrzewska enrolled in midwifery studies at the Royal Charité Hospital in Berlin. She was promoted to head midwife in 1852, just six months after her graduation.

"At the age of 22, I stood at the height of my wishes and expectations," Zakrzewska noted.

Around 1852, she became aware of the opportunities available to women in America to pursue a medical career. Faced with limitations and political challenges in her workplace, Marie grew disillusioned and made the bold decision to journey to America in search of new horizons and the chance to break free from the constraints hindering her professional aspirations.

"Scores of letters were written by Dr. Schmidt to convince the (German) government that a woman could be competent to hold the position in question and that I have been pronounced so by the whole faculty,'' recalled Zakrzewska.

After sharing her plans with her family, it was decided that Marie Zakrzewska would travel to America with one of her sisters. However, her colleagues and acquaintances failed to comprehend her desire for greater personal and professional freedom, as she eloquently expressed in her memoir. In March 1853, Marie set sail for America alongside her 19-year-old sister.

Upon their arrival, Marie wasted no time in establishing a successful tassel manufacturing business, which displayed her industrious nature. However, she was well aware that she could not immediately practice medicine in her new homeland. Recognizing the importance of learning English and connecting with female physicians, Marie reached out to Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell approximately one year after her arrival. This encounter proved to be a significant turning point in her journey as she sought to pursue her passion for medicine in America.

"She offered to give me private English lessons twice a week and to make efforts to enable me to enter a college to acquire a title of MD," remembered Zakrzewska.

Inspired and encouraged by the accomplishments of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman to graduate from Geneva Medical College in 1849, Marie Zakrzewska took a decisive step forward in her medical career. In 1854, she enrolled at Western Reserve College's medical school in Cleveland, now known as Case Western Reserve University. Marie diligently pursued her studies, and in 1856, she successfully obtained her Doctor of Medicine degree.

However, Marie faced considerable challenges in finding employment after her graduation. Despite her qualifications and achievements, societal norms and biases against women in medicine made it difficult for her to secure a suitable position. Undeterred, Marie remained determined to overcome these obstacles and forge her path as a pioneering female physician.

"I was informed that women physicians in this country were of the lowest rank and that they did not hold even a position of a good nurse," Zakrzewska wrote.

After completing her residency at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, Dr. Zakrzewska made a significant impact in Boston. In March 1859, she relocated to Boston to assume the role of a professor of obstetrics at the New England Female Medical College. However, in 1862, she resigned from her position to establish the New England Hospital for Women and Children.

The establishment of this hospital marked a pivotal moment in the advancement of women in medicine. It became the second hospital in the United States to be operated by women physicians, which provided both medical care and training opportunities for women. Over the years, the hospital experienced substantial growth and became a renowned institution where generations of women physicians received their training.

In a groundbreaking move, the New England Hospital for Women and Children opened the country's first professional nurse training program in 1872. In 1879, Mary Eliza Mahoney graduated from this program and made history as the first professional African-American nurse.

Due to the persistent refusal of admission to the Massachusetts Medical Society, women physicians, including Dr. Zakrzewska, formed their own society in 1878. Dr. Zakrzewska played a prominent role in this organization, served as its president, and championed the rights and recognition of women physicians in the medical field. Her leadership and advocacy were instrumental in advancing the cause of women's inclusion and professional recognition in medicine.

"I learned that social prejudices, habits, and customs can be as strong barriers to intellectual development as those placed in the way of reform by a despotic German government," Zakrzewska observed.

Dr. Marie Zakrzewska's life and legacy are a remarkable inspiration for her accomplishments as an immigrant, pioneer in medicine, dedicated teacher, successful entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for equal rights. Her unwavering determination to break barriers and challenge societal norms left an indelible mark on the field of medicine and the advancement of women's rights.

Through her teaching roles at various institutions, including the New England Female Medical College, Dr. Zakrzewska empowered and mentored countless women physicians and equipped them with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in a male-dominated field.

In addition to her medical and educational endeavors, Dr. Zakrzewska displayed a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit. Her involvement in establishing the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and the New England Hospital for Women and Children demonstrated her ability to identify and address the specific healthcare needs of women and children while also creating opportunities for women physicians to practice and advance in their careers.

Dr. Marie Zakrzewska's life serves as an enduring testament to the power of perseverance, determination, and resilience in the face of adversity.

Further reading:

A woman's quest ; The Life of Marie E. Zakrzewska, M.D Vietor, Agnes C. editor and creator, D. Appleton 1924


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