Rebecca Lee Crumpler, née Davis (February 8, 1831 – March 9, 1895), was an African-American physician and author. Becoming a Doctor of Medicine in 1864 after studying at New England Female Medical College, she was the first African-American woman to become a physician in the United States. Rebecca graduated medical college and published a reference book, A Book of Medical Discourses, at a time in history when very few African Americans were allowed to attend medical college or publish books. Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston, primarily for poor women and children. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, believing it to be "a proper field for real missionary work" and to continue her focus on diseases of women and children. Crumpler worked for the Freedmen's Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves; She was subject to "intense racism" and sexism while practicing medicine. She later moved back to Boston and "entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in [her] house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration." In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses. Dedicated to nurses and mothers, it focused on the medical care of women and children and was one of the first publications written by an African American about medicine, in addition to being the only female physician author in the 19th century.
Early life and education
In 1831, Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis in Christiana, Delaware to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis. She was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who cared for infirm neighbors. Rebecca's aunt acted as the doctor in her community and had a huge influence on Rebecca. Crumpler later attended the elite West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts where she was a "special student in mathematics."
Nursing and medical school
She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1852. During the next eight years Crumpler was employed as a nurse until she was accepted into the New England Female Medical College in 1860. This school was founded by Dr. Israel Tisdale and Samuel Gregory. It was rare for women or black men to be admitted to medical schools during this time. In 1860, due to the heavy demands of medical care for Civil War veterans, there was more opportunities for women physicians and doctors. However, because of how strikingly talented Crumpler was as a medical apprentice her "supervising doctor recommended her to this school". That year, there were 54,543 physicians in the United States, 300 of whom were women. None of them were African-American women. The faculty was hesitant to pass Crumpler because they thought she showed slow progress in learning. They ended up passing her but they felt pressured to do so. The doctors who Crumpler worked with while in medical school helped persuade the faculty to pass her. Lee Crumpler graduated from New England Female Medical College in 1864. Claims have been made that she was "homeopathically trained", and gained a lot of knowledge from other pioneers in her field at the medical college. However, Crumpler and the many other pioneers are not recognized, nor does "history record them as homeopathic practitioners." She won a tuition award from the Wade Scholarship Fund, which was established by the Ohio abolitionist, Benjamin Wade. After having completed three years of coursework and a thesis, she gave her final oral examinations in February 1864. On March 1, 1864, the board of trustees named her a Doctor of Medicine, making her the first African-American woman in the United States to earn the degree, and the only African-American woman to graduate from New England Female Medical College. The school closed in 1873 due to financial issues, without graduating another black woman. It merged with Boston University School of Medicine and "adopted an exclusively homeopathic allegiance". The school also staffed around 26 new homeopathic faculty members.
Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston, primarily for poor African-American women and children. During this time she "sought training in the 'British Dominion'." After the American Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, believing it to be "a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children." During my stay there nearly every hour was improved in that sphere of labor. 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, in a population of over 30,000 colored." Crumpler worked for the Freedmen's Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves who were denied by white physicians. At the Freedmen's Bureau she worked under the Assistant Commissioner, Orlando Brown. She was subject to "intense racism" by both the administration and other physicians: "men doctors snubbed her, druggist balked at filling her prescriptions, majority of pharmacist would not acknowledge the prescriptions she filled and some people wisecracked that the M.D. behind her name stood for nothing more than 'Mule Driver'."
By the time she moved back to Boston, her neighborhood on Joy Street in Beacon Hill was a predominantly African-American community. She "entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration."
A Book of Medical Discourses
In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses from the notes she kept over the course of her medical career. It was dedicated to nurses and mothers, and focused on the medical care of women and children. Though her primary focus was on the health of women and children which seem to be influenced by homeopathy, she "suggested recommendations for treating diseases without mentioning homeopathy". In her book "she did not advocate for the homeopathic approach", even though she was well aware that medicine was dangerous and could cause risk and harm. She "favored conventional amount" of standard medicine usage and recommended many throughout her discourse. Her medical book is divided into two different sections. In the first half of her book, she focuses on "treatment, prevention, and cure of infantile bowel complaints" that can occur around the teething period until the child is about five years of age. The second portion of the books mainly focuses on womanhood and "distressing complaints" from youth to mature women. Although the book was focussed on medical advice, Crumpler also ties in autobiographical details that contain commentary regarding to politics, social, and morality. Crumpler describes the progression of experiences that led her to study and practice medicine in her A Book of Medical Discourses (1883):
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.
At the time, many early African American authors have had their writings and books include prefaces and introductions that have a white male sounding authentication. Crumpler was able to introduce her own text, and is also able to justify her work based on only her authority as well.
While living in Charlestown, Rebecca married Wyatt Lee, a Virginia native and former slave. They were married on April 19, 1852. Rebecca was still a medical student when her husband Wyatt died of Phthisis pulmonalis (tuberculosis) on April 18, 1863. He is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Boston. Her M.D. degree was awarded under her married name, Rebecca Lee.
In Saint John, New Brunswick, on May 24, 1865, Rebecca married Arthur Crumpler, a former fugitive slave from Southampton County, Virginia. Born in 1824, he was the son of Samuel Crumpler, a slave of Benjamin Crumpler. Arthur lived on the neighboring estate of a large landowner, Robert Adams. He served with the Union Army at Fort Monroe, Virginia as a blacksmith, based upon his training and experience. He went to Massachusetts in 1862 and was taken in by Nathaniel Allen, founder of the West Newton English and Classical School, called the Allen School.
Rebecca and Arthur were active members of the Twelfth Baptist Church where Arthur was a trustee, and in mid-December, 1870, their daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler, was born at their 20 Garden Street home.
Crumpler spoke at a service for Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner upon his death in 1874. She read a poem that she had written for him, where "she touchingly alluded to his love for the gifted Emerson." By 1880, Rebecca and Arthur moved to Hyde Park, Boston.
Although "no photos or other images" of Crumpler survive, a Boston Globe article described her as "a very pleasant and intellectual woman and an indefatigable church worker. Dr. Crumpler is 59 or 60 years of age, tall and straight, with light brown skin and gray hair." About marriage, she said the secret to a successful marriage "is to continue in the careful routine of the courting days, till it becomes well understood between the two."
Rebecca Crumpler died on March 9, 1895, in Fairview, Massachusetts, while still residing in Hyde Park. She and her husband Arthur are both buried at the Fairview Cemetery near their residence in Hyde Park. Arthur died in Boston in 1910.
The Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African-American women, was named in her honor. Her home on Joy Street is a stop on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail. Dr. Maass Robinson and Dr. Patricia Whitley made this lifelong legacy become reality.
At Syracuse University there is a pre-health club named "The Rebecca Lee Pre-Health Society". This club is there to encourage people with all different types of backgrounds to get involved with health professional schools. They offer mentors from all kinds of medical practices, workshops, and all kinds of resources to be able to succeed.
Rebecca Crumpler overcame and challenged the many prejudices towards African Americans in pursuing careers in the medical field. The first African American to hold the job title of a physician was initially credited to a different woman by the name of Dr. Rebecca Cole. In fact, Rebecca earned her degree three years before Rebecca Cole.