Dr. Rebecca Lee Davis Crumpler was the first African-American female physician in the United States. Born Rebecca Davis in Christiana, Delaware, she was raised by her Aunt, a nurse in Pennsylvania. Her aunt’s nursing and care for others inspired Dr. Crumpler’s lifetime work in healthcare, particularly for women, children, and the poor.
Dr. Crumpler’s Education and Doctor of Medicine
For the era, Dr. Crumpler received an excellent education from a private school in Massachusetts. In 1852, she married Wyatt Lee and moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts where she worked as a nurse. She applied and was accepted at The New England Female Medical College in Boston in 1860. At the time, American society resisted both African-Americans and women becoming doctors.
For an African American woman, it was even harder to become a doctor. In 1860, when Rebecca applied to medical school, only 300 doctors in the country were female, and none of those female doctors were African American. Many male physicians claimed women lacked both the physical and medical abilities to be doctors. Others argued that even if women managed to master the curriculum at the medical school, it was ill suited to their feminine sensitivities, even though many nurses in the 1860s were female.
Despite this, Dr. Rebecca Crumpler graduated with her medical degree in 1864. Her first husband passed away while she was in medical school. Shortly after she graduated, she married her second husband, Arthur Crumpler, and began practicing medicine in Boston.
After the Civil War, Dr. Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia.
While in Virginia, Dr. Crumpler worked under the Freedman’s Bureau, a federal agency intended to help the slaves make the shift to being freedmen. Dr. Crumpler provided health care for desperately poor and newly freed African Americans, particularly women and children. In 1869, they returned to Boston and she continued to practice medicine in an African-American community there.
In 1880, they moved for the last time to Hyde Park, Massachusetts . While Dr. Crumpler was no longer practicing medicine in New York, she did write and publish a medical text, A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts. The first part focused on young childhood ailments and the second focused on Women’s health issues and ailments of youth of either gender. This book is likely to be the first medical textbook written by an African American, let along an African American woman. She died on March 9, 1895 at the age of 64.
Challenges Rebecca Crumpler faced as an African-American female physician.
Dr. Rebecca Crumpler faced many challenges in her career, because she was an African American and a woman. In fact, very few African American men were doctors at the time. She persisted practicing medicine, particularly tending to African-American women, children and the poor, despite rampant racism and sexism.
In 1989, 104 years after Rebecca Crumpler’s death , an organization that promotes female physicians recognized her for her groundbreaking career.
Her hard work and her many accomplishments are an inspiration for generations to follow.
A few interesting facts for you.
- In the first half of the 19th century, American medical schools were closed to African Americans. Those few who obtained medical degrees had to do so abroad.
- While admittance to medical schools for African-Americans was changing in the United States by 1860, only a few medical schools accepted African American men.
- The first medical school for African-Americans, Howard University Medical School, did not open until 1868.
Interesting Links you might like:
- Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, first African-American Woman Physician by Dr. Howard Markel
- Black History Month: a Medical Perspective: Education. Exhibited Feb.-March 1999 and Feb.-March 2006. Duke University Medical Center & Archives
Editors Note: the last place of residence for Dr. Crumpler is Hyde Park Massachusetts. Thanks to Tom S. for dropping us a line to make sure we had this correctly. As always, mistakes happen and we are grateful for any help when things get past our editors.