Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska

#womenshistoryProfilesMarch 16, 2022

Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska was one of several women who helped open the doors of the medical profession to women in America. But she approached the profession with a different philosophy than many of her contemporaries. 

Zakrzewska rejected the notion that women were by nature moral and sympathetic, and thus better suited to the profession, and she refuted the argument that female patients needed or deserved female doctors. Instead, Zakrzewska held that “science has no sex” — that the intelligence, compassion, insight, skill, and ambition required to succeed in science and medicine were exclusive to neither men nor women. 

Born and raised in Germany, Zakrzewska was introduced to medical work by her mother, a midwife who took her daughter along on her rounds and emphasized professionalism and the value of formal credentials from legitimate medical institutions. Zakrzewska followed her mother into midwifery and trained at Royal Charité, one of Europe’s finest schools, where she rose to the rank of head midwife. 

But midwife was as far as she could go in 1850s Germany. To achieve her goal of becoming a doctor, Zakrzewska would have to travel to America, where women had been making inroads to the profession in recent years. In 1835, Sarah and Harriot Hunt had become the country’s first women doctors, albeit without sanction from the medical establishment, and in 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell had become the first woman in American to earn a medical degree. 

Zakrzewska arrived in America in 1853 and was soon welcomed into a community of social reformers, including the Hunt sisters, Blackwell, and others. Through her friendship with the Hunts, Zakrzewska learned to see her struggle within then larger context of the fight for women’s rights, and with Blackwell’s help she gained admission to the Cleveland Medical College, becoming one of the few women to earn a degree in the male-dominated medical establishment. 

Zakrzewska then joined Blackwell and her sister, Emily Blackwell — also a graduate of Cleveland Medical College — in opening the New York Infirmary For Women and Children, the country’s first hospital staffed by women, in 1857. 

It was the first of several positions Zakrzewska would hold in a career dedicated to the rigorous clinical training of women physicians. Two years later she moved to Boston to serve as professor of obstetrics at the New England Female Medical School, and after three years she left to found the historic New England Hospital for Women and Children, the first in Boston operated by women and the only one in the city to provide obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics, as well as a complete medical and surgical ward. 

The facility, which Zakrzewska ran for 40 years, trained several generations of famous women physicians, including Susan Dimock, who was admitted to the University of Zurich and returned as surgeon. Dimock also expanded the school’s reach by offering the first professional nurse-training program in the United States, which allowed Mary Eliza Mahoney to become the first Black woman to earn a professional nursing license in 1879. 

Zakrzewska and her colleagues further broke barriers by raising $50,000 they offered to Harvard University to establish a medical program for women. Their offer was rejected by Harvard but accepted by Johns Hopkins University, which opened its doors to women in 1893. 

Zakrzewska died in 1902, three years after retiring from the hospital she founded.

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