Celebrating Black Excellence: Rebecca Lee Crumpler

(Photo: National Library of Medicine)

(Photo: National Library of Medicine)

Deepika Joshi

Rebecca Lee Crumpler challenged the thinking and practices that prevented African-Americans from pursuing careers in medicine. Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler completed her Medical Doctorate (M.D.) in 1864, receiving her degree from New England Female Medical College, thus making her the first African-American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree. She persevered through the years where opportunities for schooling were limited to girls and young women. Although education reform increased during the 1830s and 1840s, women’s intelligence was still considered sub-par in comparison to men’s. Being as bold as she was, Rebecca Lee Crumpler overcame this societal boundary.

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(Photo: National Library of Medicine)

Rebecca Davis was born in Delaware on February 8, 1831, but grew up in Pennsylvania. She attended the West-Newton English and Classical School, a private school in Massachusetts, where she was classified as a “special student.” Later in 1852, she moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts and worked as a nurse. Despite the hurdles in front of her, in 1860, she applied to medical school and was accepted into the New England Female Medical College, where she received her M.D. She was the only African-American woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College, which closed in 1873.

Moreover, Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston, with a concentration in the care of women, children, and the poor. In addition to her desire to care for others, she stepped forward to administer to freedmen through the Freedmen’s Bureau, and to do so, in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia. Crumpler later returned to Boston in 1869 where she practiced medicine from her home on Beacon Hill and spread nutritional advice to poor women and children.

In 1883, she successfully marked her name in the historical record with the publication of her book, Book of Medical Discourses (1883), which gave medical advice to women and children in the area of health care for their families. In her book, she provides a brief summary of her career path: “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.”

Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler died on March 9, 1895 in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. In 1989, an organization called the Rebecca Lee Society, which supports and promotes black women physicians, was founded by Saundra Maass-Robinson, M.D. and Patricia Whitley, M.D.  She serves as a lifetime inspiration for youth today. For quite sometime, her story had been forgotten. Through her groundbreaking achievements, today she is honored as a remarkable woman, who changed the face of medicine and became the first African-American physician in the process.