Born in 1831 in Delaware, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, née Davis, was the first Black woman to earn an M.D. degree and become a recognised Doctor of Medicine. She was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who sparked her interest in medical work.
Crumpler moved to Massachusetts at the age of 21 to work as a nurse before registering for the New England Female Medical College in 1860. This was the first medical school in the country which accepted women and, due to recommendations from the doctors she worked with prior to 1860, she was accepted. At the time she was accepted there were only 300 female physicians in the US; none of whom were Black. In fact, she was the only African-American woman to graduate before the college closed 13 years later.
After graduating, Dr. Crumpler moved to Richmond where she felt her skills could be used best to aid the Freedmen’s Bureau, despite intense racism from surrounding communities. Alongside other black physicians she helped women, children and formerly enslaved people who had no other access to medical care.
In the late 1860s Crumpler returned to Boston and continued to treat neighbours and locals regardless of their financial situation. In 1883 she published her Book of Medical Discourses, sharing her knowledge of treating illnesses in infants and childbearing women. This made Crumper the only African-American doctor in the nineteenth century, and the only female physician author of this time period.
Today, Crumpler’s accomplishments are still being honoured by a scholarship in her name at Boston University, and a medical society for African-American students at Syracuse University.
Despite being a remarkable figure, very little information about Crumpler remains. Most of what we know of her comes from her book. What we do know is Rebecca Lee Crumpler challenged gender and race prejudice to become the face of female African-American medicine, and inspire generations to come.
For more information about Rebecca Lee Crumpler there is a full biography available here, or for a longer read consider reading the introduction to her book where she discusses her own life. Crumpler also features in The Gryphon Science’s article Trailblazers: African-American Women in STEM by Kate Hall.
By Indi Lacey
Header image: Atkins HS News