Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler: The First Black Woman To Receive An M.D.

black-history-rebecca-j-cole-drWho knew that the history of healthcare started with a Black Woman? While many know about Dr. Vivian Thomas and Dr. Charles Drew, many don’t know about Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

Although Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler was born free in 1831 in Delaware, she still had to face many of the everyday struggles of not only being Black and interested in health (a career choice unpopular and believed during that time to be unfit for Negroes to perform), but she was also a woman–both two strikes against her. Crumpler was raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania. Growing up, her aunt quickly became her inspiration, as she attended to neighbors when they were sick and was compassionate in providing health care to others.

Throughout the 1850’s, Crumpler worked as a nurse in Massachusetts, and after being noticed by supervisors early on, she was recommended the New England Female Medical College in Boston, where she attended classes and graduated on Feb. 24, 1864, becoming the first African American woman to receive a Doctorate of Medicine degree.Dr Lee

Dr. Crumpler worked as a general probationer in Boston for various families, and at the end of the Civil War in 1865 she relocated to Richmond, Virginia to treat the newly freed slaves who needed urgent looking after. Dring the war,

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.

Crumpler’s loving nature and generous reputation was widely recognized in the black community for years.

In 1866, she joined other black physicians caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have had no access to medical care, working with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and missionary and community groups, even though black physicians experienced intense racism working in the postwar South.

She returned to Joy Street in Beacon Hill, Boston with her husband in 1869, where she spent the rest of her days providing help and nutritional advice to impoverished women and children.

Crumpler passed away in 1895, but her…

…achievements and legacy live on forever, remaining an idol and a role model for black physicians, women, and aspiring children, proving anything is possible with hard work and discipline. In 1884, there was not great demand for her service in the community. She was no longer practicing medicine when she wrote 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.

In her honor, two women doctors founded the Rebecca Lee Society in 1989, which is committed to supporting black women physicians.