Rebecca Lee Crumpler Was the First African American Female Physician — Her Life and Death

In 1864, an extraordinary woman became a physician. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, one of the few female physicians of the era, was also an African American.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman to become a doctor, and one of the few women throughout the United States to earn an M.D. Her graduating class of 1864 at the New England Female Medical College consisted of herself and two white women.

That year, of the over 50,000 doctors practicing in the United States, less than 300 were women. The American Civil war was raging, and for an African American woman to become a doctor was an extraordinary achievement, but Crumpler's ambition had been to become a better nurse.

Crumpler graduated as an M.D., sadly, a year after her husband of 11 years, former slave Wyatt Lee, passed away, a victim of tuberculosis

Presumed portrait of Rebecca Lee Crumpler | Source: Wikimedia Commons/Meserette Kentake (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Presumed portrait of Rebecca Lee Crumpler | Source: Wikimedia Commons/Meserette Kentake (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A LEGACY OF LOVE

Crumpler had been raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who served as midwife to her community, and since medical care was scarce, she was also the "doctor" who tended to their wounds and illnesses.

Crumpler was inspired by her aunt's devotion and her care of the needy and resolved to follow in her footsteps and become a nurse. In her Her 1883 book, "A Book of Medical Discourses," she wrote:

"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."

Presumed portrait of Rebecca Lee Crumpler as a nurse | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

Presumed portrait of Rebecca Lee Crumpler as a nurse | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

BECOMING A NURSE

Crumpler, then 21, moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she apprenticed to become a nurse. At that time, there was no formal education for nurses, and young women acquired the necessary skills "on the job."

Crumpler's skill and dedication impressed the doctors she worked with, and they recommended her to the New England Female Medical College. She wrote:

"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."

The New England Female Medical College | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

The New England Female Medical College | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

THE NEW ENGLAND FEMALE MEDICAL COLLEGE

The New England Female Medical College had been formed in 1848 to train women primarily in the field of obstetrics, which the founder, Dr. Samuel Gregory, felt was the "natural" province of women.

Gregory believed that training women to attend other women in childbirth would free male doctors to do more "important" work, more suitable to their gender.

Slaves freed at the end of the Civil War | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

Slaves freed at the end of the Civil War | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

Crumpler graduated as an M.D., sadly, a year after her husband of 11 years, former slave Wyatt Lee, passed away, a victim of tuberculosis.

In 1865, after the end of the Civil War, the 33-year-old widow moved to her late husband's native Virginia, where she provided medical care to the destitute and freed slaves. She wrote:

"The last quarter of the year 1866, I was enabled (...) to have access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes."

Black and White teen-aged soldiers serving in the Union Army during the Civil War | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

Black and White teen-aged soldiers serving in the Union Army during the Civil War | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

RETURN TO BOSTON

Crumpler returned to Boston in 1969 with her new husband, Arthur Crumpler, a former runaway slave. The latter had served in the Union Army in Virginia and studied at the West Newton English and Classical School.

The couple took up residence in Joy Street, where Crumpler dedicated herself to working with the children and women of the neighborhood, most of whom never paid her any fees. She wrote:

"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 a measure, of remuneration."

Portrait of Rebecca Lee Crumpler's husband Arthur Crumpler in 1891 | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

Portrait of Rebecca Lee Crumpler's husband Arthur Crumpler in 1891 | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

PUBLISHING HER BOOK

It was in Boston that Crumpler wrote her "Book of Medical Discourses In Two Parts," one of the first books on public health. It was based on her experience working with women and children in Boston and Richmond, and it described the recommended treatment and nutrition for women and infants.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler's "A Book of Medical Discourses" | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

Rebecca Lee Crumpler's "A Book of Medical Discourses" | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

Unlike most medical treatises, which were couched in impenetrable medical terms and written for the benefit of other doctors, Crumpler's book was written for laymen, and addressed the care of infants, the onset of puberty, and "complaints of women." She dedicated it:

 “To mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.”

Presumed portrait of Rebecca Lee Crumpler | Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Presumed portrait of Rebecca Lee Crumpler | Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

This extraordinary woman died in 1895 at the age of 64 and was survived by her husband Arthur, and their daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler dedicated her own life to mitigating the afflictions of the human race, and in the process, became an inspiration for the hundreds of thousands of women of all races who have followed her into the medical profession.

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