She was a pioneer in every sense of the word!
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler is credited as the first Black woman physician and while there are no surviving photos of the trailblazing doctor, her origin story is even more inspiring than her accomplishments. Born Rebecca Davis in Christiana, Delaware in 1831, Crumpler was the daughter of Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber, the National Women’s History Museumreports. As a child, she spent most of her time with her aunt in Pennsylvania, crediting her time there with inspiring her to go into medicine.
“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 be in a position to relieve the sufferings of others,” Crumpler wrote in her book, published in 1883.
She often accompanied her aunt on her trips to care for sick neighbors, fostering her passion early. By 1852, Crumpler moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts to begin her career as a nurse. While there was no formal school at the time to become a licensed nurse, the first one opening in 1873, Crumpler learned on the job how to care for patients, assisting several Boston area doctors for nearly a decade.
The same year she arrived in Massachusetts, she also married her husband, Wyatt Lee, a Virginia laborer. By 1860, Crumpler became the first and only Black woman to be accepted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston. The institution was the first to award MD’s to women, progressive in the sense that they were one of the only accepting African-Americans. Crumpler was able to receive a scholarship from Ohio abolitionist Benjamin Wade to attend the school and while she worked hard, she was forced to leave after two years to care for her ailing husband.
Wyatt passed away in April 1863 of tuberculosis, and Crumpler attempted to resume her studies but faculty members were worried about letting her back in because it was taking her long to finish. However, many of the school’s patrons, who were abolitionists, advocated for Crumpler, and she was readmitted, graduating with her “Doctress of Medicine” on March 1, 1864 at the age of 33. She made history as the first Black woman physician and remains the only Black woman to ever receive a medical degree from the New England Female Medical College, the school merging with Boston University Medical School in 1874.
Crumpler began practicing in the Boston area, eventually remarrying Arthur Crumpler, a fugitive slave and former Union Army veteran, in 1865. Arthur worked as a porter, taking classes at night to learn to read and write at the age of 74. Crumpler, on the other hand, had received her doctorate just as the Civil War was ending, making her skills a hot commodity for newly emancipated African-Americans in need of medical care.
The couple moved to Richmond, Virginia, Crumpler working with the Freedmen’s Bureau and other charitable groups to care for the formerly enslaved. She saw the move as an opportunity to give back while also learning about other diseases that might be present. In the late 1860s, the Crumplers returned to Boston, settling in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, a predominately African-American area, where Crumpler could treat her neighbors on Joy Street. She served anyone who needed care, even those who couldn’t pay. She often fought on their behalf to get prescriptions filled by racist pharmacists and navigated around the admission prohibitions to local hospitals for her patients.
In 1880, Crumpler retired, and the couple moved to Hyde Park. In 1883, she published a book based on her journal notes entitled, A Book of Medical Discourses, considered today as one of the first medical texts written by a Black author. The text covered a wide range of topics including nursing, maternal health, teething and child health. Crumpler passed away on March 9, 1895 of fibroid tumors at the age of 64, and her husband passed away in 1910.
Today, Crumpler’s legacy lives on. She continues to inspire generations of Black doctors and her birthday, February 8th, has been declared National Black Women Physicians Day. For years, her burial site at Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park went without a headstone. In 2019, 124 years after her death, a fundraising campaign was launched to give both Crumpler and her husband, who was buried next to her, proper headstones; they were installed in 2020. The Virginia governor also declared March 30th Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day in 2019 and Crumpler’s Beacon Hill home is a stop on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail. While Black women still only make up 2% of practicing physicians, one of the first medical communities for Black women is named the Rebecca Lee Society. Hopefully, her story will inspire more African-American women to pursue a career in medicine.
Today and everyday, we remember Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.
Meet Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman physician/Photo Courtesy of Black Then