Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
1831 – 1895
Rebecca Crumpler, M.D., born Rebecca Davis in Deleware, is the first Black woman to earn a medical degree and be confirmed as a doctor in the United States. “I early conceived a liking for relieving the sufferings of others,” said Crumpler. It was this inherent will to care for the health of others that helped secure Crumpler’s place in the history of medicine.
Crumpler’s drive to help others likely originated at home observing her aunt care for sick people. This passion eventually manifested through literature. In 1883, Crumpler published a “Book of Medical Discourses: In two parts”. The first half of the text focused on caring for children, with the following header: Treating of the cause, prevention, and cure of infantile bowel complaints, from birth to the close of the teething period, or till after the fifth year.
The second half of the text focuses on the care of women and has the following header: Containing 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.
Crumpler’s career in medicine began in nursing. She worked as a nurse for eight years. The doctors Crumpler assisted during those eight years recommended Crumpler for admission to the New England Female Medical College. Crumpler was admitted and graduated four years later in 1864. At the time, only 300 of the more than 54,000 doctors in the country were women. Of those 300, Crumpler was the only Black woman. But not only was Crumpler the only Black woman doctor at the time, she was the first ever in the nation’s history.
With the country in the middle of a civil war, demand for physicians skyrocketed. Crumpler remembered her roots and took her medical training to the Richmond, Virginia community because of its large Black population where she believed she could do the most good. According to Crumpler, Richmond represented, “the proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children…a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored.”
Though freed, if not for the work of Crumpler and other doctors, former slaves would not have access to medical care. After doing this work in the face of intense, daily, overt racism from, Crumpler decided to return to Boston, a familiar region where she received her formal medical training.