Marie Zakrzewska, Medical Pioneer

When Harvard recently announced that it would proudly celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first woman entering its Medical School in 1945, we were reminded of a Jamaica Plain woman who was a much earlier pioneer. Almost a hundred years earlier, Marie Zakrzewska started medical school in 1854 in Ohio and became internationally famous for her work here in Boston.

 Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. Courtesy nih.ogv

Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. Courtesy nih.ogv

Dr. Zakrzewska founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children, the first American hospital with a school for nurses. The hospital is still with us, but is now doing business as the Dimock Community Health Center near Egleston Square. The old hospital's venerable buildings speak of more than one hundred years of service to our community. Sadly, most residents have forgotten the groundbreaking innovations that occurred there. From the New England Hospital came America's first trained nurse, America's first woman's medical society, America's first Afro-American trained nurse, and the first hospital social service department. Its founder was a remarkable doctor.

Marie Zakrzewska (pronounced Zak-SHEV-ska) was born in Berlin of Polish background in 1829. By the time she was 22, she was director of the prestigious Charite Hospital for midwives in Berlin, but her youth and gender led to resentment from the male doctors there. She came to the United States in search of more equal opportunities in medicine. In New York, she became friendly with Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, and with their help traveled west to enter Western Reserve College in Cleveland. Study must have been hard; because she had not learned very much English, but her European training became her advantage- Prussia was then one of the most advanced medical countries in the world.

When she graduated with her M.D. degree in 1856, she became known as "Dr. Zak" because no one could pronounce her name easily. She immediately returned to New York and helped the Blackwell's start the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1857), the first hospital staffed by women in the United States. Dr. Zak stayed there without pay for two years, working as resident physician and superintendent, and trying to raise funds in New York and Boston.

Her contacts in Boston led to an appointment in 1859 as Professor of Obstetrics at the New England Female Medical College, which had been founded in 1848 as the first medical college for women in the world. Dr. Zakrzewska's dream was to open the medical profession to women. But the promises of the College were not fulfilled. Her attempts to change it from a midwife training school to a mainstream medical school with practical clinical training were opposed by the owner and trustees. Dr. Zak resigned and began work to found the New England Hospital for Women and Children, a center where women physicians would treat women patients.

Marie Zakrzewska's hospital opened in 1862, at 60 Pleasant Street in Boston, as a training hospital of the highest possible standards that would allow women to enter the best medical colleges in the world. Irregular physicians, such as homeopaths, phrenologists and magnetists, were not allowed to associate with the institution. It was the only hospital in Boston to provide obstetrics, gynecology and pediatrics, as well as a complete medical ward and surgical wards. Dr. Zakrzewska's expertise in science and sanitary conditions made the hospital a leader in preventing contagious fevers and assured the success of the enterprise.

Two generations of women physicians were trained at the New England Hospital and spread throughout the world on their careers. Mary Putnam Jacobi became the leading woman doctor of the late 1800s. Sophia Jex-Blake led the fight for women physicians in Great Britain, and Susan Dimock went to Zurich and returned as the finest surgeon on the staff. Dr. Dimock reorganized the nurses' training school. This school graduated Linda Richards in 1873 as America's first trained nurse and Mary Eliza Mahoney as the first Afro-American trained nurse in 1879. Other pioneer doctors spreading the seed were Anita Tyng of Rhode Island, Mary DeHart of New Jersey, Mary Thompson in Chicago and Eliza Mosher at Michigan. Nevertheless, these professionals were repeatedly refused admission to the Massachusetts Medical Society and they formed their own society in 1878 with Dr. Zak as president.

In 1872, the New England Hospital moved to its present site near Columbus Avenue and continued its expansion. The area had recently become a part of Boston, and the suburban neighborhood was ideal for recuperation. Transportation was good, and the area's German population would have appealed to the good doctor. Dr. Zakrzewska moved to Jamaica Plain in 1890 and her Peter Parley Road home became a center of medical discussion, as well as feminist and abolitionist sentiments. William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Karl Heinzen became her close friends.

Dr. Marie Zakrzewska died in her Jamaica Plain home on May 12, 1902, three years after her retirement from the hospital she loved. The graceful buildings remain, but even more importantly, so does the legacy of forty years of women she trained to become the leaders in American medicine.


Walsh, Doctors Wanted, No Women Need Apply, New Haven, 1977; Drachman, Hospital with a Heart, Ithaca, 1984; Abram, Send us a Lady Physician, New York, 1985; Dictionary of American Biography. 

Copyright © 1995 Michael Reiskind