Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the First African American Medical Doctor

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the First African American Medical Doctor

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On March 8 and 9, 2017, AfroAmerica Network celebrates two events: Women's day and the anniversary of the death of Rebecca Lee Crumpler, born Davis, the first African American woman to earn a Medical Doctor degree in the United States.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler is also the only African American woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College, which closed in 1873, without graduating any other Black woman, when it merged with Boston University.

Born on February 8, 1831, Rebecca Lee Crumpler was admitted to the Medical college in 1860, after eight years as a nurse. It was then rare for Black people, even less for Black women, to be admitted to medical schools during this time. In 1860, there were 54,543 physicians in the United States, 300 of whom were women. None of them were African American women.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis in Christiana, Delaware to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis and raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who cared for disabled people. Crumpler later attended the elite West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts where she excelled in mathematics. After graduation, she worked as a nurse.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston, focusing her practice to helping poor women and children. She married Arthur Crumpler, a former fugitive slave from Southampton County, Virginia, who had served with the Union Army during the American Civil War.

After the American Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia. There, she helped freed slaves, believing Virginia 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.
Based on her biographies, Rebecca Crumpler 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'".

After her post war service in Richmond she returned to Boston with her husband. She established her practice out of their home in a neighborhood that had become a Black community. Her practice among women and children was busy, but not always remunerative. She often provided care for the poor without pay.

She published "A Book of Medical Discourses" in 1883 was one of the first written by an African American about medicine. In the forward of the book, she wrote, “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.”

Rebecca Crumpler died on March 9, 1895 in Fairview, Massachusetts