On March 1, 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African American woman in the United States to become a physician.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (née Davis) was born free (and not into slavery) in Christiana, DE, to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis on February 8, 1831. Raised in Pennsylvania by her aunt, who cared for any neighbors who were ill, Rebecca was exposed at an early age to caring for the sick. She went on to attend West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts.
In 1852, Rebecca moved to Charlestown, MA, and worked as a nurse for the next 8 years. This was a great accomplishment in and of itself. At the time, there were no nursing schools and Rebecca had to learn nursing on the job. The physicians she worked with were so impressed that they wrote her letters of recommendation for admittance into the New England Female Medical College.
In 1860, Rebecca was accepted by the New England Female Medical College, despite protests from some members of the staff. The college garnered criticism from many male physicians as well, who claimed that women did not have the physical strength to practice medicine, and that many of the topics taught in the medical curriculum were ‘inappropriate’ for women.
The same year she was accepted to medical school, Rebecca married Arthur Crumpler. Her first husband, Wyatt Lee, died of tuberculosis in 1852.
In 1864, Dr. Crumpler became the college’s only African American graduate.
Upon graduating, Dr. Crumpler moved to Richmond, VA, to administer health care through the Freedmen’s Bureau to freed slaves, who would otherwise have no access to such care. In 1869, she returned to Boston to practice from her home in Beacon Hill, focusing on poor women and children.
In 1883, she published a medical guide book titled Book of Medical Discourses, based on the journals she had kept during her years of practice. The book was dedicated to nurses and mothers, and was filled primarily with advice on the care of women and children.
Dr. Crumpler died on March 9, 1895.
To put Dr. Crumpler’s achievements into perspective, consider that the Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865, while she was in medical school. Dr. Crumpler was accepted for admission and practiced medicine for the rest of her life—a miraculous feat for an African American woman amid the racial unrest and intolerance that were hallmarks of that era.
The perseverance and hardships Dr. Crumpler must have endured to become the first African American female physician in the United States remain largely undocumented.
In addition, her accomplishments went unnoticed for many years—Dr. Rebecca Cole was mistakenly believed to be the first African American female physician. In fact, Dr. Crumpler completed her degree a full 3 years before Dr. Cole, according to historical researchers.
In her honor, the Rebecca Lee Society was formed in 1989 by Drs. Saundra Maass-Robinson and Patricia Whitley. It was one of the first medical societies for African American women.
Dr. Crumpler’s former home on Joy Street is a stop on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
Chandler, DL. “Little Known Black History Fact: Rebecca Lee Crumpler.” blAckamericaweb.com. https://blackamericaweb.com/2017/01/25/little-known-black-history-fact-rebecca-lee-crumpler/. Accessed February 28, 2018.
Markel, H. “Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, first African American woman physician.” PBSNEWSHOUR. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/celebrating-rebecca-lee-crumpler-first-african-american-physician. Accessed February 28, 2018.
Crumpler, Rebecca Davis Lee (1831-1895). Black Past.org. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/crumpler-rebecca-davis-lee-1831-1895. Accessed February 28, 2018.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (183101895) Physician. America Comes Alive! https://americacomesalive.com/2012/01/31/rebecca-lee-crumpler-1833-1895-physician/. Accessed February 28, 2018.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler African American Physician. Up Closed. https://upclosed.com/people/rebecca-lee-crumpler/. Accessed February 28, 2018.