“I have been deeply interested in Dr. Zak’s book.”

Lavinia Goodell, February 25, 1861

 Lavinia Goodell was a voracious reader and had eclectic tastes. In addition to reading the popular fiction of the day, she was also very interested in medical and scientific topics. For a time she had a roommate, Nancie Monelle, who was studying medicine, and her lifelong friend Mary Ann Wattles was also a physician.

One of the pioneering woman physicians in the United States was Marie E. Zakrewska. Not only did Lavinia eagerly read the doctor’s autobiography, she and Zakrewska shared a close mutual friend, and there is certainly a possibility that Lavinia met Zakrewska.

Photo of Dr. Marie Zakrewska, a pioneering woman physician in the United States.
Dr. Marie E. Zakrewska

Dr. Zak, as she was called, was born in Berlin in 1829. She graduated from a Berlin school for midwives in 1851. She came to the United States in 1853 where she met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in this country to become an M.D. Blackwell assisted Dr. Zak in her efforts to learn English and helped her gain admission to a medical college in Cleveland. Dr. Zak graduated in 1856. She moved to New York where she helped Blackwell and her sister, Emily, who by this time had also become a physician, raise funds to establish the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. The Infirmary opened in 1857, and Dr. Zak was its resident physician and general manager for its first two years of existence. She served as resident physician and professor of obstetrics at the New England Female Medical College in Boston from 1859 to 1862. She resigned over a disagreement with the College’s founder, who had envisioned the school as simply being a training course for midwives.

It was during her time in Boston that Dr. Zak published her autobiography.  In February 1861, twenty-two year old Lavinia wrote to her sister:

I have been reading lately a  little work entitled “A Practical Illustration of Woman’s Rights to Labor,” being an Autobiography of Miss Dr. Zakrewska, a German lady. You may remember my having spoken of her as a member of the Alpha and an intimate friend of Mary’s. I have been deeply interested in it, perhaps the more so that I know the subject. The biography is written in the form of a letter addressed to Mary.

“Mary” was Mary Booth, Lavinia’s longtime friend who would subsequently become Harper’s Bazar’s first editor and Lavinia’s colleague. Mary met Dr. Zak while doing a story for a New York paper on the opening of the Blackwell sisters’ infirmary. (Mary Booth’s sister was a patient of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.) Dr. Zak found Mary Booth a kindred spirit, saying, “I found that she also was a beginner in her career and had obstacles to overcome; as, for instance, hiding her sex by signing only her initials to whatever she wrote, or not signing at all.”

In 1862, Dr. Zak founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. The hospital offered clinical practice to female physicians and was the first hospital in Boston to offer gynecological and obstetrical care and the first hospital in America to offer a general training school for nurses.

New England Hospital for Women & Children, Boston

Dr. Zak died in 1902. At the end of her 1860 autobiography she mused:

On looking back upon my past life, I may say that I am like a fine ship, that, launched upon high seas, is tossed about by the winds and waves, and steered against contrary currents, until finally stranded upon the shore, where, from the materials, a small boat is built, must strong enough to reach the port into which it had expected to enter with proudly swelling sails. But this ambition is entirely gone;  and I care now very little whether the people recognize what is in me or not, so long as the object for which I have lived becomes a reality.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (February 25, 1861); A Practical Illustration of Woman’s Right to Labor, or a Letter from Marie E. Zakrewska, M.D., edited by Caroline H. Dall (Walker, Wise and  Company, 1860); A Woman’s Quest: The Life of Marie E. Zakrewska, M.D., edited by Agnes E. Vietor, M.D., F.A.C.S. (D. Appleton and Company, 1924); Janice P. Nimura, The Doctors Blackwell (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2021).  

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