Marie Zakrzewska

Marie Zakrzewska


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Marie Zakrzewska was born in Berlin, Germany, on 6th September, 1829. She was admitted to the school of midwives in Berlin and graduated in 1851. The following year she was appointed as assistant to the Director of the Royal Hospital Charité, but after male members of staff complained about this decision, Zakrzewska decided to resign.

In 1853 Zakrzewska emigrated to the United States and soon after arriving in New York met Elizabeth Blackwell who helped her master the English language. With Blackwell's help Zakrzewska obtained a place at the Cleveland Medical College in 1856.

In May, 1857, Zakrzewska joined with Elizabeth Blackwell and Emily Blackwell to established the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Zakrzewska served as resident physician and general manager for the next two years. The women gave public lectures on hygiene, created a health centre, appointed sanitary visitors and campaigned for better preventive medicine.

Zakrzewska then worked as professor of obstetrics at the New England Female Medical College in Boston (1859-62). Zakrzewska also became involved in the struggle against slavery and campaigned for woman suffrage.

In 1862 Zakrzewska established the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She served as a physician in the hospital (1862-1899) and also maintained a successful private practice in Boston. Marie Zakrzewska died in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on 12th May, 1902.


Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took office as the president of Liberia in January 2006, becoming the first elected woman head of state in Africa. She signed a Freedom of Information bill (the first of its kind in West Africa) and made reduction of the national debt a cornerstone of her presidency. To investigate crimes committed during Liberia’s civil war, she established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As a result, she became a global icon with her commitment to fighting dictators, corruption, and poverty through empowerment of women and girls.

President Sirleaf and two other female leaders ( Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman ), were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace prize for their nonviolent role in promoting peace, democracy and gender equality.


Marie Zakrzewska (1829-1902)

Pioneering Role in Medicine. Marie Zakrzewska, an influential New England physician, played an important role in opening the field of medicine to women. After re-zewska worked with other female physicians to establish women ’ s hospitals in the United States. She founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1862 and became a well-known physician in New England. Throughout her life she lobbied for the equal treatment of women in medicine. She was also active in the woman ’ s rights movement and, in the antebellum years, the antislavery movement, where she became close friends with William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and other radical abolitionists.

Medical Studies in Germany. Of Polish ancestry but born in Berlin, Germany, in 1829, Zakrzewska was no stranger to medicine: her maternal grandmother had been a veterinary surgeon, and her mother practiced midwifery in Berlin. At fifteen Zakrzewska spent six weeks nursing her aunt and great-aunt and formed a desire to pursue medicine as a career. She enrolled at the Berlin School for Midwives in 1849 and in May 1852 was appointed chief director of the Charit é Hospital, as well as the major professor of the School for Midwives. Because of her sex Zakrzewska ’ s appointments generated intense debate and opposition among university and city officials. Continued opposition caused Zakrzewska to resign her positions in the fall of 1852.

Immigration to the United States. In March 1853 Zakrzewska and her younger sister Anna left Berlin for the United States. Zakrzewska had heard about the Pennsylvania Female Medical College, and she hoped that the climate for female doctors would be more hospitable in America than in Europe. Although their destination was Philadelphia, the sisters temporarily settled in New York City, where two more sisters and a brother soon joined them. There Marie Zakrzewska learned of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the modern world. Blackwell had graduated from the Geneva Medical College in 1849 in 1854 her sister Emily received an M.D. from the same institution. That same year the New York legislature granted the Blackwell sisters a charter to establish the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. Elizabeth Blackwell became a mentor to Zakrzewska, working with her in the dispensary and teaching her English. Blackwell also helped secure Zakrzewska ’ s admission to Cleveland Medical College, part of Western Reserve College the medical school had begun admitting female students in 1847.

The Importance of Hospitals. Zakrzewska completed her medical degree in 1856 and returned to New York City, where, in the spring of 1857, she helped Elizabeth Blackwell expand the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children from a dispensary into a full hospital — the first hospital in the United States run and staffed entirely by women. Zakrzewska occupied several posts at the hospital, including resident physician, instructor of students, superintendent, and housekeeper. She also established a successful private practice in the city. In 1859 she accepted a position as professor of obstetrics at the New England Female Medical College in Boston, but she resigned in 1861 because she believed that the college ’ s standards were too low and because the trustees failed to respond to her requests for the establishment of a college-based hospital.

The New England Hospital for Women and Children. A year after resigning her post at the New England Female Medical College, Zakrzewska opened a ten-bed hospital in a rented house in Boston. The purposes of the institution were to promote the training of female physicians and nurses, while offering medical care for women and children. The facility eventually grew into the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Zakrzewska oversaw the administration of the institution, and for a time she served as resident physician and head nurse. Her involvement with the New England Hospital for Women and Children lasted almost four decades. She also continued her private practice. In 1899, at seventy, Zakrzewska retired. She died in 1902.


Colonial era health care was based primarily on traditional medicines and traditional cures. [1] Professionalization was very slow before 1750, by which time there were a handful of cities of more than 20,000 population, each of which had physicians trained in England and Scotland, as well as a growing number of locally trained men. Cotton Mather of Boston was the first significant figure in American medicine. [2]

Disease environment Edit

Mortality was very high for new arrivals, and high for children in the colonial era. [3] [4] Malaria was deadly to many new arrivals. The disease environment was very hostile to European settlers, especially in all the Southern colonies. Malaria was endemic in the South, with very high mortality rates for new arrivals. Children born in the new world had some immunity—they suffered mild recurrent forms of malaria but survived. For an example of newly arrived able-bodied young men, over one-fourth of the Anglican missionaries died within five years of their arrival in the Carolinas. [5] Mortality was high for infants and small children, especially from diphtheria, yellow fever, and malaria. Most sick people turn to local healers, and used folk remedies. Others relied upon the minister-physicians, barber-surgeons, apothecaries, midwives, and ministers a few used colonial physicians trained either in Britain, or an apprenticeship in the colonies. There was little government control, regulation of medical care, or attention to public health. By the 18th century, Colonial physicians, following the models in England and Scotland, introduced modern medicine to the cities. This allowed some advances in vaccination, pathology, anatomy and pharmacology. [6]

There was a fundamental difference in the human infectious diseases present in the indigenous peoples and that of sailors and explorers from Europe and Africa. Some viruses, like smallpox, have only human hosts and appeared to have never occurred on the North American continent before 1492. The indigenous people lacked genetic resistance to such new infections, and suffered overwhelming mortality when exposed to smallpox, measles, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases. The depopulation occurred years before the European settlers arrived in the vicinity and resulted from contact with trappers. [7] [8]

Medical organization Edit

The city of New Orleans, Louisiana opened two hospitals in the early 1700s. The first was the Royal Hospital, which opened in 1722 as a small military infirmary, but grew to importance when the Ursuline Sisters took over the management of it in 1727 and made it a major hospital for the public, with a new and larger building built in 1734. The other was the Charity Hospital, which was staffed by many of the same people but was established in 1736 as a supplement to the Royal Hospital so that the poorer classes (who usually could not afford treatment at the Royal Hospital) had somewhere to go. [9]

In most of the American colonies, medicine was rudimentary for the first few generations, as few upper-class British physicians emigrated to the colonies. The first medical society was organized in Boston in 1735. In the 18th century, 117 Americans from wealthy families had graduated in medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, but most physicians learned as apprentices in the colonies. [10] In Philadelphia, the Medical College of Philadelphia was founded in 1765, and became affiliated with the university in 1791. In New York, the medical department of King's College was established in 1767, and in 1770, awarded the first American M.D. degree. [11]

Smallpox inoculation was introduced 1716–1766, well before it was accepted in Europe. The first medical schools were established in Philadelphia in 1765 and New York in 1768. The first textbook appeared in 1775, though physicians had easy access to British textbooks. The first pharmacopoeia appeared in 1778. [12] [13] The European populations had a historic exposure and partial immunity to smallpox, but the Native American populations did not, and their death rates were high enough for one epidemic to virtually destroy a small tribe. [14]

Physicians in port cities realized the need to quarantine sick sailors and passengers as soon as they arrived. Pest houses for them were established in Boston (1717), Philadelphia (1742) Charleston (1752) and New York (1757). The first general hospital was established in Philadelphia in 1752. [15] [16]

In the colonial era, women played a major role in terms of healthcare, especially regarding midwives and childbirth. Local healers used herbal and folk remedies to treat friends and neighbors. Published housekeeping guides included instructions in medical care and the preparation of common remedies. Nursing was considered a female role. [17] Babies were delivered at home without the services of a physician well into the 20th century, making the midwife a central figure in healthcare. [18] [19]

The professionalization of medicine, starting slowly in the early 19th century, included systematic efforts to minimize the role of untrained uncertified women and keep them out of new institutions such as hospitals and medical schools. [20]

Doctors Edit

In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910), an immigrant from England, graduated from Geneva Medical College in New York at the head of her class and thus became the first female doctor in America. In 1857, she and her sister Emily, and their colleague Marie Zakrzewska, founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the first American hospital run by women and the first dedicated to serving women and children. [21] Blackwell viewed medicine as a means for social and moral reform, while a younger pioneer Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906) focused on curing disease. At a deeper level of disagreement, Blackwell felt that women would succeed in medicine because of their humane female values, but Jacobi believed that women should participate as the equals of men in all medical specialties. [22] In 1982, nephrologist Leah Lowenstein became the first woman dean of a co-education medical school upon her appointment at Jefferson Medical College. [23]

Nursing Edit

Nursing became professionalized in the late 19th century, opening a new middle-class career for talented young women of all social backgrounds. The School of Nursing at Detroit's Harper Hospital, begun in 1884, was a national leader. Its graduates worked at the hospital and also in institutions, public health services, as private duty nurses, and volunteered for duty at military hospitals during the Spanish–American War and the two world wars. [24]

The major religious denominations were active in establishing hospitals in many cities. Several Catholic orders of nuns specialized in nursing roles. While most lay women got married and stopped, or became private duty nurses in the homes and private hospital rooms of the wealthy, the Catholic sisters had lifetime careers in the hospitals. This enabled hospitals like St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, where nurses from the Sisters of Charity began their work in 1849 patients of all backgrounds were welcome, but most came from the low-income Catholic population. [25]

Infant mortality was the major component of life expectancy. Infant mortality was lower in America compared to other parts of the world because of better nutrition. The rates were higher in urban areas, and in Massachusetts statewide the rates increased as the state urbanized. Public health provisions involving sanitation, water supplies, and control of tuberculosis started showing effects by 1900. Public health conditions were worse in the South until the 1950s.

Infant Mortality Rate, for Massachusetts
Years Deaths under 1
per 1000 live births
1970 16.8
1960 21.6
1945-49 28.4
1935-39 43.2
1925-29 67.6
1915-19 100.2
1905-09 134.3
1895-99 153.2
1885-89 158.5
1875-79 156.3
1865-69 146.3
1855-59 122.9
1851-54 131.1

source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (1976) Series B148

In the American Civil War (1861–65), as was typical of the 19th century, more soldiers died of disease than in battle, and even larger numbers were temporarily incapacitated by wounds, disease and accidents. [26] Conditions were poor in the Confederacy, where doctors and medical supplies were in short supply. [27] The war had a dramatic long-term impact on American medicine, from surgical technique to hospitals to nursing and to research facilities.

The hygiene of the training and field camps was poor, especially at the beginning of the war when men who had seldom been far from home were brought together for training with thousands of strangers. First came epidemics of the childhood diseases of chicken pox, mumps, whooping cough, and, especially, measles. Operations in the South meant a dangerous and new disease environment, bringing diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid fever, and malaria. Disease vectors were often unknown. The surgeons prescribed coffee, whiskey, and quinine. Harsh weather, bad water, inadequate shelter in winter quarters, poor sanitation within the camps, and dirty camp hospitals took their toll. [28]

This was a common scenario in wars from time immemorial, and conditions faced by the Confederate army were even worse. The Union responded by building army hospitals in every state. What was different in the Union was the emergence of skilled, well-funded medical organizers who took proactive action, especially in the much enlarged United States Army Medical Department, [29] and the United States Sanitary Commission, a new private agency. [30] Numerous other new agencies also targeted the medical and morale needs of soldiers, including the United States Christian Commission as well as smaller private agencies such as the Women's Central Association of Relief for Sick and Wounded in the Army (WCAR) founded in 1861 by Henry Whitney Bellows, and Dorothea Dix. Systematic funding appeals raised public consciousness, as well as millions of dollars. Many thousands of volunteers worked in the hospitals and rest homes, most famously poet Walt Whitman. Frederick Law Olmsted, a famous landscape architect, was the highly efficient executive director of the Sanitary Commission. [31]

States could use their own tax money to support their troops as Ohio did. Following the unexpected carnage at the battle of Shiloh in April 1862, the Ohio state government sent 3 steamboats to the scene as floating hospitals with doctors, nurses and medical supplies. The state fleet expanded to eleven hospital ships. The state also set up 12 local offices in main transportation nodes to help Ohio soldiers moving back and forth. [32] The U.S. Army learned many lessons and in 1886, it established the Hospital Corps. The Sanitary Commission collected enormous amounts of statistical data, and opened up the problems of storing information for fast access and mechanically searching for data patterns. The pioneer was John Shaw Billings (1838-1913). A senior surgeon in the war, Billings built the Library of the Surgeon General's Office (now the National Library of Medicine, the centerpiece of modern medical information systems. [33] Billings figured out how to mechanically analyze medical and demographic data by turning it into numbers and punching onto cardboard cards as developed by his assistant Herman Hollerith, the origin of the computer punch card system that dominated statistical data manipulation until the 1970s. [34]

After 1870 the Nightingale model of professional training of nurses was widely copied. Linda Richards (1841 – 1930) studied in London and became the first professionally trained American nurse. She established nursing training programs in the United States and Japan, and created the first system for keeping individual medical records for hospitalized patients. [35]

After the American Revolution, the United States was slow to adopt advances in European medicine, but adopted germ theory and science-based practices in the late 1800s as the medical education system changed. [36] Historian Elaine G. Breslaw describes earlier post-colonial American medical schools as "diploma mills", and credits the large 1889 endowment of Johns Hopkins Hospital for giving it the ability to lead the transition to science-based medicine. [37] Johns Hopkins originated several modern organizational practices, including residency and rounds. In 1910, the Flexner Report was published, standardizing many aspects of medical education. The Flexner Report is a book-length study of medical education and called for stricter standards for medical education based on the scientific approach used at universities, including Johns Hopkins. [38]

Nursing Edit

As Campbell (1984) shows, the nursing profession was transformed by World War II. Army and Navy nursing was highly attractive and a larger proportion of nurses volunteered for service higher than any other occupation in American society. [39] [40]

The public image of the nurses was highly favorable during the war, as exemplified by such Hollywood films as Cry "Havoc", which made the selfless nurses heroes under enemy fire. Some nurses were captured by the Japanese, [41] but in practice they were kept out of harm's way, with the great majority stationed on the home front. The medical services were large operations, with over 600,000 soldiers, and ten enlisted men for every nurse. Nearly all the doctors were men, with women doctors allowed only to examine patients from the Women's Army Corps. [39]


Further Reading

Abraham, Ruth J., ed. "Send Us a Lady Physician": Women Doctors in America 1835-1920. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985.

Alsop, Gulielma Fell. History of the Woman's Medical College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1850-1950. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1950.

Blackwell, Elizabeth. Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Introduction by Dr. Mary Roth Walsh. New York: Schocken, 1914. Reprint, 1977.

Blustein, Bonnie Ellen. Educating for Health and Prevention: A History of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine of the (Woman's) Medical College of Pennsylvania. Canton, MA: Watson Publishing International, Science History Publications, 1993.

Bonner, Thomas Neville. To the Ends of the Earth: Women's Search for Education in Medicine. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Corea, Gena. The Hidden Malpractice: How American Medicine Treats Women as Patients and Professionals. New York: William Morrow, 1977.

Drachman, Virginia G. Hospital with a Heart: Women Doctors and the Paradox of Separatism at the New England Hospital, 1862-1969. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Furst, Lillian R., ed. Women Healers and Physicians: Climbing a Long Hill. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Hurd-Mead, Kate Campbell. Medical Women of America: A Short History of the Pioneer Medical Women of America and of a Few of Their Colleagues in England. New York: Froben Press, 1933.

Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

More, Ellen Singer and Milligan, Maureen A., eds. The Empathic Practitioner: Empathy, Gender, and Medicine. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Walsh, Mary Roth. "Doctors Wanted: No Women Need Apply": Sexual Barriers in the Medical Profession, 1835-1975. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.


Marie Zakrzewska - History

From age 13, Marie Zakrzewska accompanied her mother, a midwife, 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.

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.

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.


6. Sarah Louise and Annie Elizabeth Delany

The Delany sisters were as impressive together as they were on their own. The Columbia graduates and daughters of a slave lived during the Harlem renaissance and went on to become civil rights pioneers and leaders in their fields. Annie Elizabeth, who went by Bessie, was the second black female dentist in New York State and was known for giving free children's dental exams when she wasn't looking after the teeth of famous civil rights leaders and authors. Sarah, or Sadie, as she was called, was the first black woman to teach home economics in a New York City school. Much later in their lives, they became famous for Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Year, their best-selling oral history of their lives. The duo was practically immortal — Having Our Say came out when the sisters were 103 and 101, respectively they lived until they were 109 and 104.


NLM in Focus

To celebrate, we’re profiling 12 women who were pioneers in the field of health and medicine—with a twist. We’re writing about them in first person as if they had access to today’s news.

How many can you identify?

1. The Founder

I was a mother of two daughters. But when it comes to my work, some people called me a mother and a father. Perhaps the more accurate word would be founder. Let me tell you about myself.

I was definitely out of the mainstream. I foresaw genetic sequencing way before it became a key source of biological information.

As a biochemist who developed compilations of protein structures, I introduced the single letter descriptions to facilitate computer analysis, established a large computer database of protein structures, and was the author of the Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure. My work was used in genetic engineering and medical research. I was also delighted to contribute to the understanding of the evolutionary tree based on correlations between proteins and living organisms.

At the time of my death, I was associate director of the National Biomedical Research Foundation and a professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University Medical Center, but I am perhaps best known as the founder of the field of bioinformatics. (It was former head of NCBI David Lipman who first said I was the mother and father of bioinformatics.)

Needless to say, if I were alive today, I would be very interested in the work of NCBI and delighted to see so many women excelling in my field.

2. The Critic

I was born at a time when I needed to be critical—critical of a system and a society that excluded women from too many opportunities.

My need to petition started early. I had to convince the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania to let me sit for my medical exams early. In protest over the allowances made for me, the dean, a man, resigned. You could call it sweet revenge when a woman—Ann Preston—took over his position and became the first woman dean of a medical school.

My first chance to practice medicine came from another female graduate, Marie Zakrzewska, who founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children. But I wanted more and better training, which I did not believe the women’s medical schools in the US could provide, so I left for Paris, where, after much perseverance, I gained admission to the Ecole de Medicine.

When I returned, I was so energized that I organized the Association of the Medical Education of Women in New York. (Later, it became the Women’s Medical Association of New York City.)

I married Dr. Abraham Jacobi, who became known as the “father of American pediatrics.” Luckily, he advocated for my being admitted to medical societies of New York.

My essay “The Question of Rest for Women during Menstruation” was influential. Today, you take it for granted that a woman can compete and work any day of the week. This wasn’t’ always the case. Through tables, statistics, and sphygmographic tracings, I proved that women were strong and agile throughout their monthly cycle. I was also an attending and practicing physician. I even opened a children’s ward at the New York Infirmary in 1886.

You’d have thought I would have been a shoo-in for membership to the Academy of Medicine. But I wasn’t. It took one person’s vote to put me in the majority for membership.

3. The Angel

I lived four miles from NLM. You can take a tour of my house and learn a lot about me. If you do, check out the backless chair in my office. I believe it helped my posture. See my dining room. I was a vegetarian. See a photo of me wearing more than a dozen medals. Many people agree that I deserved them.

In my long life, I was a teacher, a founder of a free public school, and a US Patent Office clerk. During the Civil War, I cared for soldiers in the field and organized relief efforts on their behalf. After the war, I ran an Office of Missing Soldiers in Northwest Washington. Later, I organized the American Red Cross. (Throughout my career, NLM’s Specialized Information Services would have been so helpful!)

My life wasn’t easy. I had bouts of depression, and I lived at a time when it was very challenging for women to be respected in their work. I remember having men spit tobacco on my skirts when I worked. But I was tough, and whatever I did, I did with passion to help others.

I was called the “Angel of the Battlefield” for my work during the Civil War.

4. The Memoir Writer

If I had been born under different circumstances, I would have been as famous as #3 above.

If you were a black soldier during the Civil War who got wounded or sick, I would have been there for you. If you didn’t know how to read or write, I would have taught you.

I knew at an early age how tough life could be. I was born into slavery and learned in secret how to read and write by going to a school run by an African American woman who was free. As you might imagine, this school was illegal. Later, other “teachers,” who were both black and white, helped me learn

During the Civil War, I not only nursed wounded African American soldiers, I taught as a many as I could to read. Education and health care were so important to me.

My memoir about the Civil War was published in 1902. I was recognized in the NLM exhibition “Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African Americans in Civil War Medicine.”

The curator of the exhibition chose to highlight this quote from my book:

“It seems strange how our aversion to seeing suffering is overcome in war … and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain, bind up their wounds, and press cool water to their parched lips, with feelings only of sympathy and pity.”

5. Creator of a Famous Test

If you had a baby or were a baby born in the past 40 years or so, chances are you were given a score at birth, which was named after me. Prior to my test, many doctors waited until it was too late to determine an infant’s health. The two-minute wait for the cry could be fatal if an infant was in distress.

In addition to being an anesthesiologist and promoter of maternal health, I was an athlete, a musician, a golfer, and a fly fisher. I talked fast and drove fast. I even took flying lessons. But I never married. If you’d have asked me why, I would have told you I hadn’t met a man who could cook.

As part of its Profiles in Science project, the National Library of Medicine collaborated with the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections to digitize and make available a selection of my papers. I think you’ll enjoy learning more about me.

6. The Nurse

I hear that NLM’s director is a nurse. That is so awesome! I was a nurse, too.

Born at a time and in a place where wealthy women were expected to become wives and mothers, I had other plans. I became a nurse. At a time when the sick and poor were cared for by other poor people, I advocated that they receive care from people with medical training.

I helped plan hospitals. I became a renowned statistician and epidemiologist (although I wasn’t called that). I even invented a new form of the pie chart. I also founded a school for nursing. Come to think of it, I did a lot of things, but I’m best known as founder of the modern nursing profession.

7. The Advocate

I was an early advocate for something still considered controversial in some circles. I felt that in order for women to have equal footing in society, they needed the power to decide when and if they became pregnant. I actually coined the term “birth control.”

Early in life, two of my older sisters supported me in my education as a I attended Claverack College and Hudson River Institute, before becoming a nurse probationer at White Plains Hospital. Like Woman Number 2 above, I worked as a visiting nurse, helping in the slums on the east side of New York. My nursing experiences helped inform my views.

It wasn’t easy. I was arrested several times for making birth control available. When I told the judge I couldn’t respect the law against birth control, I was sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse.

My trial generated a lot of publicity. Finally, 100 years ago, in 1918, the birth control movement was victorious when a judge in New York issued a ruling that allowed doctors to prescribe contraception. But more importantly, the publicity surrounding my trial helped more people advocate for birth control.

I continued working to promote and explain birth control for the rest of my life.

8. First Female African American Doctor

I was the first African American woman in the United States to earn an MD.

Would you like to take a guess when I earned my medical degree? 1864? 1894? 1924? 1944?

I was born in 1831 in Delaware but was raised in Pennsylvania by my aunt, who was a caretaker for many in the area. In 1852, I had moved to Massachusetts, where I worked as a nurse for eight years despite my lack of formal training. But don’t judge me—I would have gone to school if it had been available.

Fortunately, that work helped me get letters of recommendation from physicians in Massachusetts, and I was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860. Four years later, I had earned my medical degree. Alas, the school closed in 1873.

I practiced in Boston for a short period of time before moving to Richmond, Virginia, after the Civil War ended in 1865. I worked with other black physicians caring for formerly enslaved individuals who wouldn’t have had access to care.

There isn’t very much known about me, but the introduction of Book of Medical Discourses, which I published in 1883, offers some insight. You can learn a bit more about me through NLM’s Changing the Face of Medicine.

9. The Prize Winner

I wasn’t allowed to study at the University of Warsaw because I was female, so I joined a bunch of other students at a clandestine university. Our classes met at night so we could avoid the czar’s police. My favorite subjects were math, chemistry, and physics.

When I had made enough money, I left for Paris to study. In Paris, I ended up working in a lab with Pierre, the man who would become my husband. We became famous for pioneering research on radioactivity, and we even extracted two previously unknown elements—polonium and radium. Together we (and Henri Becquerel) shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics for that work.

But the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry was all mine.

The award recognized my ability to produce radium as a pure metal and document its properties. I was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Unfortunately, I didn’t live long enough to see my daughter Irène Joliot-Curie win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 with her husband.

Although I’m best known for my Nobel Prize-winning work, I can’t resist telling you about my efforts in mobile medicine. During World War II, we procured X-ray equipment and generators to create mobile units called petites Curies (“little Curies”) that we could position close to the front. They remind me of the work being done by NLM’s Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications to build mobile screeners to diagnose tuberculosis. Their system travels by truck throughout Kenya, making it possible for more people to get screened and treated.

10. The Unexpected Stateswoman

I was about as disadvantaged as a kid could get during the Reconstruction Era. Born on July 10, 1875, in a tiny village near Maysville, South Carolina, I was poor, black, and female.

Yet throughout my life, I turned perceived negatives into positives. On land dismissed as a dump in Daytona Beach, Florida, I started a school, which today is a university with schools that include nursing, health sciences, science, engineering, and mathematics. At a time when African American women had difficulty getting employment in white collar positions, I was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In addition, I was vice president of the NAACP and president and founder of the National Council of Negro Women.

You might be surprised to know that the very first statue erected on public land in Washington, DC, to honor an African American and a woman is of me. Come by and visit anytime you’re near Capitol Hill.

11. The Inspirer

I hear that my work inspired an online and traveling exhibition, which NLM’s History of Medicine Division has developed and which will debut in June. Needless to say, I’m flattered.

I was born two years after the Civil War ended. I attended Miss Cruttenden’s English-French Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies. Can you believe a school could be called that? At least it was named after a woman! I wanted to attend Vassar College when I was 16, but the school thought I was too young. Undeterred, I attended the New York Hospital’s School of Nursing, graduated from the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses, and took courses at the Woman’s Medical College.

I founded the Henry Street Settlement in New York City’s Lower East Side, and I advocated for having nurses in public schools. I believed that every New York City resident was entitled to equal and fair health care regardless of their social status, socio-economic status, race, gender, or age. But my activism didn’t stop there. I also campaigned for suffrage, supported racial integration, and was involved with the founding of the NAACP.

Even if you don’t know my name, chances are you have heard of the term I coined: “public health nurse.”

12. A Towering Figure

Before there was the National Library of Medicine, there was the Army Medical Library in Washington, DC, and I was a proud leader. I helped develop the first selection and acquisitions policy for the Army Medical Library and helped craft legislation for the Medical Library Assistance Act.

My career highlights also included being director of the Washington University Medical Library in St. Louis and serving as president of the Medical Library Association. I was active in international activities throughout much of my career, although my international work isn’t as well-known as my achievements in library leadership, automation, education, and medical history.

The Medical Library Association said I was a “towering figure” who left behind “a powerful body of work in the fields of library automation, medical literary education, history of medicine, and international librarianship.”

Indeed, I was active in MLA and the Special Libraries Association (SLA). I was honored with MLA’s Marcia C. Noyes Award, delivered the Janet Doe Lecture, and received the SLA John Cotton Dana Award.

In my oral history, I said, “I find learning a great joy and a great pleasure, and I don’t understand people who don’t get any pleasure of something new and different and exciting which they had not thought of before, or they don’t get any feeling of satisfaction out of following an argument to its logical conclusion or examining something from various points of view and trying to get a rounded picture of a phenomenon. …[Others] think of learning as something they are required to do, and I think of learning as something I want to do.”

Chances are you enjoy learning, too.

Thank you for taking time to read about women who have advanced their professions or were pioneers in the fields of medicine, nursing, public health, or medical librarianship.

If you enjoyed “Who Am I?”, would you take a moment to suggest women we could consider featuring next year? Thank you!


When Boston Invented Playgrounds

This week’s episode was inspired by a Tweet from listener Joany:

@HUBhistory have you ever heard about the 1886 playground/sand pit mentioned in the discussion below? Any idea where it may have been? https://t.co/HkIWiE3eV2

&mdash Horseless Carriage Influencer (@HorselessAge) November 26, 2018

We didn’t know anything about the sandpit referenced in the linked discussion, but we dug in and learned a lot about the history of the American playground movement.

    comes to Boston (and inspires sand gardens)
  • Our episode on Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, a graduate of the New England Female Medical College.
  • The reports of the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association’s Executive Committee of 1886 and the Playground Committee of 1888 and 1890.
  • Our episode on teenaged serial killer Jesse Pomeroy, who preyed on unsupervised children in Boston in the 1870s.
  • Clarence Rainwater’s history of the US playground movement.
  • “Father of the Playground” Joseph Lee’s 1903 article in New England Magazine about Boston’s playgrounds
  • Some historical perspective in a 1915 issue of Playground Magazine
  • Kate Gannettt Wells, MEHA member and originator of Boston’s sand gardens and playgrounds, reminisces in a 1909 issue of the Journal of Education.
  • An overview of the state of affairs in a 1948 Boston Planning Department document on playgrounds.
  • An overview of the Boston 1915 Movement from the State Library.
  • The bizarre 1909 “Pageant of the Perfect City,” performed as part of Boston 1915.

(Photos above from the Rainwater book and Lee article)


Emeline Roberts Jones: The first practicing female dentist

A New England native, Emeline Roberts Jones married dentist Daniel Jones in 1854 at the age of 18. He believed that women were not suited to dentistry because of their “frail and clumsy fingers,” but Emeline persisted in secretly studying dentistry. After she had secretly filled and extracted several hundred teeth (yes, hundred), her husband allowed her to practice with him. She was 19. When she was 23, she became his partner, and when her husband died in 1865, she took over the practice and traveled around Connecticut and Rhode Island before settling in New Haven. Her career spanned 6 decades and in 1914 was made an honorary member of the National Dental Association.

Gerty Cori (1896-1957)

Another Nobel Prize winner, Gerty Cori, earned the prestigious award for her work in medicine/physiology in 1947. Cori was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in this category. She worked with her husband, Carl Ferdinand Cori, with whom she shared an interest in preclinical science, to prove vital concepts in genetics. Their work led to the discovery that an enzyme deficiency could be responsible for metabolism disorders. They also carried out multiple studies on the action of hormones, focusing on the pituitary gland. Over her lifetime, Gerty won several other awards in recognition for her contributions to science and earned honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Boston University, Smith College, Yale, Columbia and Rochester between 1948 and 1955.

Virginia Apgar (1909-1974)

Virginia Apgar is famous for her invention of the Apgar score, a vital test that was quickly adopted by doctors to test whether newborn babies required urgent medical attention. The Apgar score is responsible for reducing infant mortality rates considerably and is still used today to assess the clinical condition of newborns in the first few minutes of life. Apgar was the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999)

American chemist Gertrude “Trudy” Belle Ellion shared a Nobel Prize with George H Hitchins and Sir James Black for innovative methods of rational drug design which focused on understanding the target of the drug rather than simply using trial and error.

Coming from a scientific background, Elion was inspired to pursue medicine when her grandfather passed away from cancer when she was 15 and became dedicated to discovering a cure for the disease. Using the methods she had designed, Elion and her team developed a staggering 45 patents, including drugs to combat leukemia, herpes, AIDS and treatments to reduce the body’s rejection of foreign tissue in kidney transplants between unrelated donors.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

British scientist Rosalind Franklin is best known for her work in understanding the structure of DNA, using x-ray photographs to solve its complexities. Her identification of the double helix has led to huge advances in the field of genetics and modern medicine. Franklin also led pioneering work on the molecular structures of RNA viruses and Polio.

Franklin had a passion for science from an early age and decided to become a scientist at the age of 15. She fought against her father’s reluctance to let her undertake higher education and graduated from Cambridge University in 1941. She worked for many years as a first-rate scientist and were it not for her untimely death from cancer in 1958, it is highly likely that she would have shared Nobel Prizes in both 1962 and 1982 for work that she had a huge role in during her lifetime.

Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011)

America medical physicist Rosalyn Yalow received the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1977 for the development of the radioimmunoassays (RIA) technique, which is used to measure peptide hormones in the blood. Yalow’s diagnostic technique was so precise that it was used to scan blood donations for infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. This was fundamental in ensuring life-saving blood transfusions were safe and effective. Later, the method allowed scientists to prove that type-2 diabetes is caused by the body not being able to use insulin properly.

Patricia Goldman-Rakic (1937-2003)

Neuroscientist Patricia Goldman-Rakic is recognised for her studies of the brain, particularly, the frontal lobes and how it relates to memory. She gained her bachelor’s degree in Neurology from Vassar in 1959, and then her doctorate from the University of California in Developmental Psychology in 1963. Her multidisciplinary research significantly contributed to the understanding of neurological diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and her study of dopamine and its effects on the brain is essential to modern day understanding of conditions such as schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Francoise Barré-Sinoussi (born 1947)

Parisian scientist Francoise Barré-Sinoussi is a celebrated for her discovery of HIV as the cause of the immunodeficiency disease, AIDS. In 2008, Barré, along with Luc Montaigner, discovered that the HIV retrovirus attacked lymphocytes, a blood cell that plays an important role in the body’s immune system. Her vital work has helped millions of people who are HIV-positive to live long, healthy lives, and could pave the way for a cure in the near future.

Which women in medicine have inspired you? Let us know in the comments below.


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