Rebecca Lee Crumpler, née Davis, (February 8, 1831 – March 9, 1895) was an African American physician and author. Becoming a Doctor of Medicine in 1864 after studying at New England Female Medical College, she was the first African-American woman to become a physician in the United States. Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston, primarily for poor women and children. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, believing it to be “a proper field for real missionary work” and to continue her focus on diseases of women and children. Crumpler worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves; She was subject to “intense racism” and sexism while practicing medicine. She later moved back to Boston and “entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in her house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration.” In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses. Dedicated to nurses and mothers, it focused on the medical care of women and children and was one of the first publications written by an African American about medicine.
She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1852. During the next eight years, Crumpler was employed as a nurse until she was accepted into the New England Female Medical College in 1860. It was rare for women or black men to be admitted to medical schools during this time. That year, there were 54,543 physicians in the United States, 300 of whom were women. None of them were African-American women. She won a tuition award from the Wade Scholarship Fund, which was established by the Ohio abolitionist, Benjamin Wade. After having completed three years of coursework and a thesis, she gave her final oral examinations in February 1864. On March 1, 1864, the board of trustees named her a Doctor of Medicine, making her the first African-American woman in the United States to earn the degree, and the only African-American woman to graduate from New England Female Medical College. The school closed in 1873, without graduating another black woman. It merged with Boston University.
Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston, primarily for poor women and children. During this time she “sought training in the ‘British Dominion’.” After the American Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, believing it to be “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.” Crumpler worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves; She was subject to “intense racism”: “men doctors snubbed her, druggist balked at filling her prescriptions, and some people wisecracked that the M.D. behind her name stood for nothing more than ‘Mule Driver’.”
By the time she moved back to Boston, her neighborhood on Joy Street in Beacon Hill was a predominantly African-American community. She “entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration.”
In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses from the notes she kept over the course of her medical career. It was dedicated to nurses and mothers, and focused on the medical care of women and children. Crumpler describes the progression of experiences that led her to study and practice medicine in her A Book of Medical Discourses (1883):
It may be well to state here that, 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. Later in life 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. From these doctors I received letters commending me to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College, whence, four years afterward, I received the degree of Doctress of Medicine.
The Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African-American women, was named in her honor. Her home on Joy Street is a stop on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
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