Rebecca Lee Crumpler

She changed the face of medicine

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

It was being raised by a kind aunt who spent much of her time caring for sick neighbors and her desire to relieve the suffering of others which led Rebecca Lee Crumpler down the a career path that would earn her the distinction of being the first African American woman physician in the United States.   In doing so, she rose to and overcame the challenge which prevented African Americans from pursuing careers in medicine.

Rebecca, a bright girl, attended the West-Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts, a prestigious private school as a “special student”.  In 1852 she moved to Charleston, Massachusetts where she worked as a nurse.  In 1860, she took a leap of faith and applied to medical school and was accepted into the New England Female Medical College.

The college was founded by Drs. Israel Tisdale Talbot and Samuel Gregory in 1848 and in 1852,  accepted its first class of women, 12 in number.  However, Rebecca proved that their assertions were false when, in 1864, she earned the distinction being the first African American woman to earn an M.D. degree and  the college’s only African American graduate.  The college closed in 1873.

In 1864, a year after her first husband, Wyatt Lee died, Rebecca married her second husband, Arthur Crumpler.   She began a medical practice in Boston.   In 1865, after the Civil War ended, the couple moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she found “the proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.”  She joined other black physicians caring for freed slaves who would otherwise would not have access to medical care.  She worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau, missionary and community groups in the face of intense racism which many black physicians experienced while working in the postwar South.

Racism, rude behavior and sexism didn’t diminish Rebecca’s zeal and valiant efforts to treat a “very large number of the indigent and others of different classes in a population of over 30,000 colored”.  She declared that “at the close of my services in that city, I returned to my former home, Boston where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment, regardless, in measure, of remuneration.”

The couple lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Beacon Hill where she practiced medicine.  In 1880, she and her husband moved to Hyde Park.  It was believed that at that time she was no longer in active practice but she did write a “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts”,  the first medical publication by an African American.  The book consisted of two parts.  The first part focused on “treating the cause, prevention, and cure of infantile bowel complaints, from birth to the close of the teething period, or after the fifth year.” The second section contained “miscellaneous information concerning the life and growth of beings; the beginning of womanhood; also, the cause, prevention, and cure of many of the most distressing complaints of women, and youth of both sexes.”

Rebecca Lee Crumpler died in Hyde Park on March 9, 1895.  Notes to Women wishes to celebrate this brave woman who had the tenacity to pursue a career in medicine, proving that women can change the face of a field which many wanted to bar her from because of color and gender.  Her passion to help alleviate the suffering of others was what led her to take this path.  Her courage and perseverance in the face of racism, sexism paved the way for many, not only African Americans and women but for those who like her, will seek every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s story is a reminder to all of us that we should never let anything or anyone prevent us from pursuing our dreams.

Selfish prudence is too often allowed to come between duty and human life – Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Sources:  Changing the Face of Medicine; PBS