Dr. Rebecca Crumpler, the First Black Woman Physician

rebecca crumpler

She “sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others.”

Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree, was born free in 1831 in Christiana, Delaware.

She was a young girl when she was inspired to care for people who were sick or injured.

“Having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others,” she wrote later in life. 

She was a bright student who went on to attend the elite West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts where she was a special student in mathematics. 

When she was 21, she went into business for herself as a nurse. She also married Wyatt Lee, a former slave.

“I devoted my time, when best I could, to nursing as a business, serving under different doctors for a period of eight years (from 1852 to 1860); most of the time at my adopted home in Charlestown, Middlesex County, Massachusetts,” she wrote.

The physicians she worked with encouraged the young nurse to attend medical school. They wrote her letters of recommendation to New England Female Medical College, now Boston University School of Medicine.

Prevailing through Perseverance

There were many obstacles in her path. In 1860, only 300 of the 54,543 physicians in the United States with a medical degree were women—and all were white. In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, the then Rebecca Lee was forced to relocate to Richmond, Virginia, and when she attempted to return to medical school in 1963, her scholarship had been rescinded. 

She didn’t give up and won tuition from the Wade Scholarship Fund established by the abolitionist Benjamin Wade. In 1863, when she was in the midst of her medical studies, her husband died of tuberculosis.

Even after completing her studies, there were barriers to her degree. When she underwent her final examination with two white women, she was singled out as having “slow progress” that lead the practitioners to “hesitate very seriously in recommending her.” But the examining practitioners didn’t present evidence to substantiate their statements and the young widow received her degree.

In 1865, she married Arthur Crumpler, who escaped slavery and worked as a blacksmith for the Union Army. That year, after the war ended, the Crumplers headed back to Richmond and Dr. Crumpler took a position with the Freedmen’s Bureau, caring for newly freed slaves.

 

A Book of Medical Discourses

Dr. Crumpler declared her work “a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children. During my stay there nearly every hour was improved in that sphere of labor. The last quarter of the year 1866, I was enabled...to have access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored.”

In the post-war South, Dr. Crumpler was embraced by her patients but shunned by the medical community. “Men doctors snubbed her, druggists balked at filling her prescriptions, and some people wisecracked that the M.D. behind her name stood for nothing more than ‘Mule Driver,’” reports the book Outstanding Women Doctors.

After a few years, Dr. Crumpler returned to Massachusetts where she continued to practice medicine. In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses to advise women on health care for themselves and their children. Copies are held at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and at Countway Medical Library at Harvard University Medical School. 

Her remarkable life and perseverance exemplify the triumphs of 19th century trailblazers who broke down barriers to practicing medicine. In 1847, David Peck became the first black man to receive a medical degree in the United States. 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in American to earn an M.D. 

Dr. Crumpler died on March 9, 1895 and is buried in Fairview Cemetery near her home in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African-American women, is named in her honor. Her home on Joy Street is a stop on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.


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Lolly Spindler