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American Medical Biographies/Zakrzewska, Marie Elisabeth

Zakrzewska, Marie Elisabeth (1829–1902)

Berlin, Prussia, was the birthplace of Marie Zakrzewska, a pioneer woman physician Her father, an officer in the Prussian Army, was a descendant of a Polish family of high rank which shared their country's downfall. Her mother traced descent from a gipsy queen of the tribe of Lombardi. The great-grandmother went through the Seven Years' War as assistant-surgeon to her father, an army-surgeon; her daughter was a veterinary surgeon and Marie's mother studied and followed the profession of midwife when her husband was dismissed from the army on account of his revolutionary tendencies.

Marie was the eldest of a family of five sisters and one brother. When eleven years old she was taken by a doctor to the dead house of a hospital to see the corpse of a young man whose body had turned green from poison; she was left to roam at will in the dissecting rooms and later was forgotten and locked alone in the dead house until late at night.

She was, also, about this time given two books to read, "The History of Surgery" and "History of Midwifery," and her school days ended when she was thirteen.

The mother's practice was by this time large and increasing and Marie assisted her where-ever possible. Marie, when twenty was admitted to the Berlin School of Midwifery, but only after a direct appeal to the King by Dr. Schmidt, a prominent physician of the school, himself in failing health. It was planned that Marie should eventually be chief accoucheur in the Hospital Charité and professor of midwifery when he resigned. Marie met with untold opposition, which was only overcome through Dr. Schmidt's tenacity of purpose and the desire of his colleagues to fulfill his dying wishes.

The appointment was granted on May 15, 1852, but insidious enmity accomplished its purpose and in November of the same year she relinquished her position.

The first report of the Pennsylvania Female College had been sent to Dr. Schmidt, and Marie planned to emigrate, a project not executed until March, 1853. The parting from a home to which she was never to return, was, she writes, the hardest moment of her life. A sister accompanied her and after a voyage of forty-seven days the two girls reached New York with the sum of one hundred dollars between them. It was a blow to learn from Dr. Reisig, a friend, that in America, women physicians were of the lowest rank, and Marie's limitations in the English language prevented her from getting in touch with members of the medical profession. Nevertheless, after securing suitable rooms she put out her sign but practice did not come. Then she turned heroically for a time from her chosen work and started in the trade of supplying embroidered work to the wholesale houses. She was soon able to give work to as many as thirty girls and thus earned sufficient to keep in comparative comfort a family of four, for in September a second sister and a friend joined them. From her workgirls she gained a lasting impression of the almost hopeless struggle they waged against a life of shame. The wolf being now a reasonable distance from the door, Marie turned again to her cherished project, and obtained an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (q.v.), whereby the gates, so long closed, began to swing slowly open to the kingdom of hope.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell invited Marie to assist in her dispensary, offered to give her lessons in English and obtained admission for her to the Cleveland Medical College. The two years at this college gave her considerable pecuniary distress and in 18SS, when joyfully expecting the arrival of her mother, a despatch brought her the crushing news of her death and burial at sea. Returning to New York, Dr. Zakrzewska with Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell bent every effort to the task of bringing into existence the "New York Infirmary for Women," which was opened in May, 1857, with Dr. Zakrzewska as first resident physician.

In 1859 the New England Female Medical College of Boston invited Dr. Zakrzewska to fill the chair of obstetrics. Dr. Zakrzewska consented, with the provision that a hospital for chemical work should be opened with the college. After three years, finding growth impossible either in college or hospital, she resigned to begin the foundation of a hospital for women and children. Friends were ready to aid and a small ten-bed hospital was started in Pleasant Street in 1862. The hospital was incorporated March 12, 1863, the incorporators being Lucy Goddard, Marie E. Zakrzewska, and Ednah D. Cheney. Its objects were to provide for women medical aid of competent physicians of their own sex, to assist educated women in the practical study of medicine, and to train nurses for the care of the sick. Rapidly the work increased and eventually land was purchased in Roxbury and a thoroughly equipped building erected, which became the New England Hospital for Women and Children of 150 beds and invested funds of a million and a half dollars. For nearly forty years Dr. Zakrzewska was the guiding inspiration.

Though she did not marry, her roof sheltered two sisters and the family of a German reformer, Karl Hinzen, a Republican exile. She wrote much on important and vital questions.

In 1899 Dr. Zakrzewska, now seventy years old, retired. She had been suffering for some time from a nervous trouble which took the form of noises, which she described to a physician as a steady sound of falling rain preventing sleep, which evoked the comment "Well we do fall asleep even if it rains hard, and so you will." With fortitude and cheerfulness she awaited the last sleep which came on May 12, 1902.

Among the papers she has left are interesting and valuable talks upon: "Climate; Its Influence upon Health;" "The Woman's Club;" "Amusements; The Value of the Theatre;" "The Dormitory System in Schools and Colleges;" "The Poor; How Best to Help Them;" "The Duty of the Physician to Give Moral as Well as Physical Aid to Her Patient;" "The American Woman" (a series of able articles sent to an English woman's journal.

Obit. The Woman's Med. Jour., Toledo, vol. xii, p. 134–137. C. W.
Woman's Jour., Boston, vol. xxxiii, p. 162–163.
Mem. Issued by N. Eng. Hosp. for Women and Children, Boston, 1903, 30 p.
Autobiog. letter to Miss Mary L. Booth of N. Y., incorporated in "A Practical Illustration of Women's Right to Labor," Ed. Caroline H. Dall, 1869.