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Remembering Dr. Marie Zakrzewska M.D.

Marie Elizabeth "Dr. Zak" Zakrzewska (1829-1902) was an immigrant and a pioneer physician of Polish-German descent. Her many contributions include helping create of the first true woman's hospital in the history of the US: the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. She also helped start the Women's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston, which was the first hospital in Boston, and the second hospital in America 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."

These are the opening words of Dr. Marie Zakrzewska's memoir. She was born in Berlin in the Kingdom of Prussia (now Germany) to Ludwig Martin Zakrzewski, a Polish nobleman and Caroline Fredericke Wilhelmina Urban. Marie came from a family with medical traditions. Her grandmother was a veterinary surgeon and her mother was a midwife.

Since childhood, Marie had a keen and observant eye but her school years were not easy.

"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 to follow her mother, a midwife, on her rounds when she was 13. After she reached the highest grade in the school, she was placed with the boys as a punishment but she stated that "playing with them I felt merry, frank and self-possessed."

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

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

Around 1852, Marie knew that women could become physicians in America. Disillusioned by her workplace limitations and politics, Marie decided to go to America.

"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 she confided her plans to her family they decided she would go with one of her sisters. Her colleagues "could not comprehend why I should seek greater freedom of person and of action, " she wrote in her memoir. She left for America in March 1853 with her 19-year-old sister.

Within weeks of arrival, Marie established a successful tassel manufacturing business. She was very industrious but could not work in her profession just yet. She knew she needed to learn English and contact female physicians. About one year after her arrival, Marie contacted Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.

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

Encouraged by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who graduated from Geneva Medical College (NY) in 1849, Marie Zakrzewska enrolled at Cleveland's Western Reserve College (now Case Western Reserve College) medical school in 1854 and graduated with the degree Doctor of Medicine in 1856. After graduation, she struggled to find work.

"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.

Dr. Zakrzewska joined the fundraising and planning efforts of Dr. Blackwell and Dr. Blackwell's sister Emily who graduated with MD in 1854 to open a small hospital. They started the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 to provide care for women and children and allow work and training opportunities for women physicians. Dr. Marie Zakrzewska served there for two years as a resident physician.

In March 1859, Dr. Zakrzewska moved to Boston to become a professor of obstetrics at the New England Female Medical College. Dr. Zakrzewska resigned in 1862 to launch the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was the second hospital in America operated by women physicians. It grew rapidly, and many generations of women physicians trained there. In 1872 it opened the first professional nurse training program in the country and the first African-American nurse Mary Eliza Mahoney graduated from the program in 1879. Because they were repeatedly refused admission to the Massachusetts Medical Society, women physicians formed their own society in 1878 with Dr. Zak as president.

" I learned the 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. Zakrzewska was an immigrant, a pioneer woman physician, teacher, entrepreneur, and an advocate for equal rights whose life and legacy of breaking barriers inspire so many people.

Further reading:

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