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Prominent Poles

Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (aka “Dr.Zak”),Polish-American physician, medical pioneer ; founder of the second in the USA hospital run by women physicians and surgeons

Photo of Marie Zakrzewska, physician

Born:  September 6, 1829, Berlin, Prussia (part of German Confederation)

Died:   May 12, 1902, Jamaica Plain (now part of Boston), Massachussetts, USA

Summary. Dr. Marie Zakrzewska founded in 1862the New England Hospital for Women and Children, the first hospital in Boston- and the second hospital in America- run by women physicians and surgeons. She was a medical pioneer and a leading proponent of education for African American nurses.
Early days. Marie Zakrzewska was born in Berlin in 1829, to Ludwig Martin {probably: Ludwik Marcin RS] 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.
Education. 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. She became a teaching assistant in her second year, graduating in 1851. 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 emigrated in March 1853 to the United States to study medicine. During her first year in America she found little support for a career in medicine among the male practitioners she met. She met however Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell who helped her master English and secured her admission to 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.
Professional career. 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 there as resident physician and general manager for the next two years. In March of 1859, Dr. Zakrzewska moved to Boston to become a resident physician and 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. He had founded the college because he found the idea of male doctors attending childbirth to be morally repugnant.
Launching her own hospital. 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. She served as resident physician (1862-63), attending physician (1863-87), and advisory physician (1887-99), while also maintaining a growing private practice throughout Boston 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. . Zakrzewska contributed greatly to the eventual acceptance of women physicians. She was also a supporter of woman suffrage. She died in Jamaica Plain (now part of Boston) on May 12, 1902.
Honors. 1. On 3/13/1981 Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski (presently US Senator) introduced a concurrent resolution to express the sense of the Congress that the United States Postal Service should issue a postage stamp to honor Doctor Marie Zakrzewska. This resolution was referred to House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. It seems that no action was taken so far.
2. The Kosciuszko Foundation established “DR. MARIE ZAKRZEWSKA MEDICAL SCHOLARSHIP.” Eligibility: Female, majoring in medicine of Polish descent. Preference given to residents of New England area. Award: $2,500.

Source: Based on an article that appeared in(this information is in the public domain):
National Library of Medicine

Other sources:
Encyclopedia Britannica
Medicine at Michigan
Univ. of Florida College of Medicine
Jamaica Plain Historical Society
The Library of Congress

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Prominent Poles