Dr. Marie Elisabeth Zakrzewska (6 September 1829 – 12 May 1902) was a Polish physician who made her name as a pioneering female doctor in the United States. She founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children, the first hospital in Boston—and the second hospital in America—to be run by women physicians and surgeons.
In 1862, Marie Zakrzewska, M.D., opened doors to women physicians who were excluded from clinical training opportunities at male-run hospitals, by establishing the first hospital in Boston—and the second hospital in America—run by women, the New England Hospital for Women and Children.
Marie Zakrzewska was born in Berlin in 1829, to Ludwig Martin Zakrzewski and Caroline Fredericke Wilhelmina Urban. Her father was a civil servant from a noble Polish family, who had lost their wealth and property to the Russians in 1793. Her grandmother was a veterinary surgeon, and her mother worked as a midwife. From age 13, Marie Zakrzewska accompanied her mother on her rounds, and at age 20 she enrolled in midwifery studies at the Royal Charité hospital in Berlin, where her mother had trained. Opportunities for women were scarce, but thanks to the support of Joseph Hermann Schmidt, professor of obstetrics and the director of the school of midwifery, Marie Zakrzewska was promoted to head midwife in 1852, despite the disapproval of other faculty and not long after she finished her own training. After six months as head of midwifery, she moved to the United States to study medicine.
Marie Zakrzewska emigrated to New York in March 1853. During her first year in America she found little support for a career in medicine among the male practitioners she met. Encouraged by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, she enrolled at a traditionally all-male medical school, Cleveland’s Western Reserve College, in 1854. She was one of only six women admitted to the school during the 1850s, and she graduated with a doctor of medicine degree in 1856. Like others in this first generation of women physicians, she struggled to find work. Dr. Blackwell and her sister Emily, who was also a doctor, were planning to open a small hospital to care for women and children that would also provide opportunities for work and training for women physicians. Dr. Zakrzewska joined their fundraising effort. On May 12, 1857, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska served as resident physician there for the next two years.
In March of 1859, Dr. Zakrzewska moved to Boston to become a professor of obstetrics at the New England Female Medical College. Her students experienced the same difficulties that had prompted the founding of the New York Infirmary, and Dr. Zakrzewska struggled to find clinical experience for the new graduates. She also disagreed with Samuel Gregory, the founder of the New England Female Medical College, over the curriculum. She had proposed adding courses in dissection and microscopy, to enhance student training and keep up with the developing field of scientific medicine as it was taught at the best all-male medical schools, but Gregory was determined to confine women physicians to work in midwifery.
In 1862, Dr. Zakrzewska resigned from the New England Female Medical College and launched her own hospital, the New England Hospital for Women and Children. It was the first in Boston, and the second hospital in America, to be run by women physicians and surgeons. The hospital flourished under her direction, providing clinical experience for women physicians. Dr. Zakrzewska knew that the opportunity to work with large numbers of patients was vital if women physicians were to achieve the same levels of training and standards of practice as male physicians. The hospital became a primary training hospital for several generations of women physicians, and also trained nurses.
In 1872, the Hospital opened the first professional nursing school in the US with forty two students, but only four actually graduated. During the following years, a number of firsts occurred at the Hospital, including:
The New England Hospital for Women and Children grew rapidly, though budgets were always tight, and the hospital had to hold yearly fund-raising fairs. By the 1940s it occupied a large campus in south Boston, continuing to serve poorer populations and to train physicians and nurses. Dr. Zakrzewska’s hospital continues to serve patients today, as the Dimock Community Health Center.