Updated: Mar 23
Content warning: Racism, violence, and enslavement of Black folks
Illustrations by Alex McPhail BA (Hons)
Hello reader! My name is Kyra, my pronouns are she/her and I reside in the geographical confines of what is currently known as Canada. This post was written on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki, Attiwonderonk, & Mississauga First Nations, in what is currently known as London, Ontario. I want to acknowledge my privilege as a white cis-woman, with access to post-secondary education, stable healthcare and comfortable housing. My intention is to utilize my education and this platform to help increase awareness of important topics in women’s health and to explore social determinants of health and their impact on women. I do not intend to speak on behalf of communities that I do not belong to, and I hope to be corrected if my writing is misrepresentative. I am committed to lifelong learning, and continuously educating myself on responsible and effective allyship.
This piece intends to highlight the life of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler - the first Black female doctor in the United States - in honour of Black History Month. I do not intend to speak on behalf of Dr. Crumpler, or the Black community in general. I intend to use my privilege and this platform to help amplify Black voices and stories, traditionally forgotten by whitewashing of the history we learn in schools.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black American woman to earn a degree in medicine. She encountered prejudice and hostility as a Black female doctor, but her persistence and resilience allowed her to have a career marked with accomplishments. These accomplishments were made in a time where there were almost no Black medical practitioners or medical writers. This post aims to highlight Dr. Crumpler’s career, and to honour her achievements.
This post will specifically discuss Dr. Crumpler’s:
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (nee Davis) was born in Delaware in 1831 to Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber (1). She was raised by her aunt (unnamed) in Pennsylvania, and remained there until she graduated high school. Her aunt was well-known in their community for caring for sick people, and may have inspired Rebecca to pursue her career in healthcare (1, 2). Little is known about Rebecca’s early life, as the only information available is contained in a short introduction in her book.
Journey to medicine
A natural caregiver, Rebecca “early conceived a liking for [and] sought every opportunity to be in a position to relieve the sufferings of others” (3). She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1852, where she began working as a nurse. She continued to work as a nurse for eight years, working for different doctors around Charlestown. She excelled as a nurse, and received letters commending her skills from the doctors she worked with. These letters allowed her to gain entry to New England Female Medical College (NEFMC). NEFMC was a pioneering college, and the first medical college to train women in the U.S. (4). Rebecca graduated from NEFMC in 1864, where she was awarded “Doctress of Medicine.” At this point in time, the U.S. had 54,543 physicians - 300 of whom were female (7). Out of these 300 female doctors, none of them were Black. Her graduation made her the first Black female doctor in U.S. history. The NEFMC merged with Boston University in 1874, to become the co-ed Boston University School of Medicine, also making Dr. Crumpler the only Black female doctor to graduate from NEFMC (6).
The doctress is in!
Dr. Crumpler’s journey in medicine was not easy. In 1865, the end of the Civil War, she moved to Richmond, Virginia to practice as a doctor (1, 2, 3). Virginia had been ravaged by the Civil War and was reforming under a new constitution (5). The end of the Civil War marked the abolishment of slavery, and formerly enslaved Black Virginians were constructing new lives. Black Virginians were met with violent racism from white people in the community. Virginia was one of the largest slave states in the U.S. pre-Civil War - and there was a push from white Virginians post Civil War to return to the ‘old order’. The KuKluxKlan violently attacked and murdered Black people, and terrorized anyone who challenged white supremacy. Despite this, Dr. Crumpler had the courage to join other Black physicians in caring for previously enslaved people through the Freedmen’s Bureau, missionary, and community groups (1, 3). As a Black female physician, she was constantly disrespected by other healthcare workers. Hospital administrators routinely denied her requests to admit patients, pharmacists wouldn’t fill prescriptions she ordered, and other physicians would simply ignore her presence (7). Other physicians would scoff that the M.D. behind her name stood for nothing more than ‘Mule Driver’ (7).
Though she faced intense racism and sexism, Dr. Crumpler persisted. She saw working with the Freedmen’s Bureau as “the proper field for real missionary work.” White doctors would routinely deny care to Black people, so the physicians at the Freedmen’s Bureau would step in to care for the Black community. Together, Dr. Crumpler and the other doctors at the Freedmen’s Bureau cared for a community of over 30,000 Black people, with the vast majority having been previously enslaved (8). During this time, she took a special interest in learning about diseases that affect women and children. Later in her career, she moved back to Boston, where she served the Black community by providing pediatric care (1, 2, 3).
A Book of Medical Discourses
In 1883, Dr. Crumpler published A Book of Medical Discourses, making her one of the first Black writers to have a medical publication (1, 2). A Book of Medical Discourses was dedicated to “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race” (3). Her book reads like the earliest version of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and can be considered the first guide to maternal wellbeing and infant care.
The book is based on the medical journal she kept while treating patients in Virginia, and is divided into two parts. Part I discusses care for children from birth to five years of age. It provides tips for topics such as nursing, general infant care, and solutions for common infant disease. Part II focuses on general women’s health advice - discussing topics such as puberty, female anatomy, and menopause. Much of her advice focuses on helping women treat and prevent illnesses without the need for a doctor. In the words of Dr. Crumpler herself, “people seem to forget that there is a cause for every ailment, and it may be in their power to remove it.”
There is also political, social, and moral commentary sprinkled throughout her book. She advocates for more women gaining formal medical training. Though her opinion was shared by few at the time, she believed that women “should study the mechanism of human structure to better enable her to protect life [and] before assuming the office of nurse.” For context, nurses did not receive formal training at this time (2).
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler passed away in 1895, due to complications with fibroid tumors (9). Dr. Crumpler was buried in her final resting spot at Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park. The grave site where she and her husband, Arthur Crumpler, lie was unmarked. In this time period, it was not unusual for individuals to be buried without headstones. However, 125 years after her passing, Dr. Crumpler received a proper granite headstone for her and her husband’s gravesites. The headstone was fundraised by an initiative started by the Friends of the Hyde Park Branch Library, who secured donations from all four medical schools in Massachusetts, recruits from the Boston Police Academy, and private donors from all over the U.S. Dr. Crumpler’s memory is also honoured by a scholarship fund in her name at Boston University School of Medicine (4). This scholarship is awarded to medical students with financial need from underrepresented groups, with first priority being given to Black female applicants.
Learn more about Henrietta Lacks whose cancer cells helped revolutionize the history of medical research here.
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U.S. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler [Internet]. Changing the Face of Medicine: U.S. National Library of Medicine; 2003 Oct [Updated 2015 Jun 03; cited 2021 Feb 07]. Available from: https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_73.html
Pfatteicher, S K A. Crumpler, Rebecca Davis Lee (1831-1895), physician. American National Biography [Internet]. 2000 Feb [cited 2021 Feb]. Available from: https://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1201058
Crumpler RL. A book of medical discourses: in two parts. Boston: Cashman, Keating, printers. 1883. Available from: https://archive.org/details/67521160R.nlm.nih.gov/page/n5/mode/2up
Boston University School of Medicine Office of Development. The Rebecca Lee Crumpler Scholarship. [cited 2021 Feb 07]. Available from: http://www.bumc.bu.edu/busm/files/2020/08/CrumplerScholarship_10.30.20.pdf
University of Richmond. The Story of Virginia’s Reconstruction [Internet]. Reconstructing Virginia: [cited 2021 Feb 07]. Available from: https://reconstructingvirginia.richmond.edu/overview
Valencia EM. New England Female Medical College. Encyclopedia of Women’s Health [Internet]: 2004 [cited 2021 Feb 07]. Available from: https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-0-306-48113-0_297
Long, J. Rebecca Lee Crumpler: Physician, Author, Pioneer. Harvard University: The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. 2020 Dec [cited 2021 Feb 07]. Available from http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/rebecca-lee-crumpler-physician-author-pioneer/
Senate Historical Office. Freedmen’s Bureau Acts of 1865 and 1866. United States Senate. [cited 2021 Feb 07]. Available from: https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/FreedmensBureau.htm
Laskowski A. Trailblazing BU Alum Gets a Gravestone 125 Years after Her Death. Bostonia: 2020 Aug [cited 2021 Feb]. Available from: http://www.bu.edu/articles/2020/rebecca-lee-crumpler-first-black-female-physician-gets-gravestone-130-after-death/