Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler – first Black female doctor in the USA

Born in 1831, Rebecca Davis was raised by her aunt whom she referred to as a very kind influence in her life. In later years she would attribute to her own desire to do whatever she could to alleviate suffering, to the aunt whose ministrations were much sought after by neighbours who were sick. She attended an exclusive private school as a special student before moving to Charlestown, Massachusetts to work as a nurse. She was not formally trained as the first school for nurses did not open until 1873.

She worked for eight years with different doctors, with the result that she received several letters of commendation to be admitted as a student at the New England Female Medical College which had opened in 1850 with a class of 12 women. Its purpose was to train women in the field of obstetrics, thought to be the ‘natural province’ of women, leaving men free to get on with more important work.

The college faced a great deal of opposition from male physicians who determined that women lacked the physical strength to be doctors, and that women were incapable of mastering a medical curriculum. In addition, it was said that much of the curriculum would be inappropriate for their ‘sensitive and delicate natures’. However, Rebecca boldly applied and was accepted, entering the college in 1860 on a scholarship through the Wade Scholarship fund set up by an abolitionist.

In 1864 she received the degree of ‘Doctress of Medicine’ and was the first African American woman to receive a medical degree. What makes that so astonishing is that in 1860 there were 54,543 physicians in the USA, and only 300 were women, all white. As late as 1920, there were only 65 African American doctors in the USA.

Rachel was married Wyatt Lee, a former slave, from 1852 until his death of tuberculosis in 1863. In 1864 she married Arthur Crumpler, who had been a fugitive slave who escaped. They had one daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler.

Can you imagine losing one husband and marrying another in the middle of studying to be the first Black female doctor in the country? This was a woman of great courage and determination. Having witnessed many premature deaths, she believed that preventative practices would save lives, and this was the focus of much of her work as a nurse and then a physician. but at that time, most people did not pay much attention to the why, only the what.

She began to practice in Boston but quickly moved in 1865 to Richmond, Virginia once the Civil War ended. She felt Richmond was a ‘proper field for real missionary work, presenting ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children’. She signed up to work with The Freedmen’s Agency, the government body tasked with assisting around 4 million people transition to freedom from enslavement. The situation was much like a refugee camp and cholera and smallpox were endemic.

She and the other Black doctors provided medical care for the poorest and most destitute people and in the process, she and they endured horrifying daily episodes of intense racism, insults, as well as sexism. During this time, it was widely believed that the male brain was 10% larger than the female brain and that a woman’s job was to be submissive and beautiful. For this reason, many doctors ignored her, refused to listen to her medical opinions, and often denied her patients admittance to the hospital. Pharmacists refused to honour her prescriptions. Her degree was mocked by people who said the M.D. after her name stood for Mule Driver. However, she wrote of her success in that she was able to support ‘a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 coloured.’

Moving back to Boston in 1869, she and Arthur lived in a Black neighbourhood, providing medical help to the community, particularly caring for children, very often without any financial remuneration. In addition to running a busy medical practice, she also educated women about pregnancy and childbirth, and published an important volume on disease prevention. Truly a woman ahead of her time.

Rebecca and Arthur moved to Hyde Park, New York, in 1880 where she appears to have ceased practicing medicine but she wrote a two part book published in 1883 titled ‘Book of Medical Discourses’. In it she said: ‘I desire that my book shall be as a primary reader in the hands of every woman; and yet nonetheless suited to any who may be conversant with all branches of medical science. It was the first medical text written by an African American, and it particularly addressed the needs of women and children, which was unusual. She dedicated the book to: ‘mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.’

In 1989 the Rebecca Lee Society was formed to honour her achievements. In 2016, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, Dr. Melody T. McCloud, a graduate of Boston University School of Medicine, urged the university to memorialise Crumpler’s accomplishments. McCloud, who speaks and writes about systemic racial inequities in medicine, insisted that Crumpler should be remembered as a role model who overcame incredible odds As a result, Boston University showcases an exhibition in memory of Crumpler’s work. In March, 2019, the governor issued a proclamation commemorating Crumpler’s ‘tremendous accomplishments in medicine’ in Richmond.

No photos survive of this amazing woman, but it’s possible a coin has her face on it. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was a woman in a million, a woman on a mission, a woman who knew the call on her life and didn’t let anything stop her from going full steam ahead. Regardless of the detractors, the dissenters and the downright abusive, she continued on her journey and, in doing so, changed the future for women everywhere… and their children.