Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler is considered the first African American female doctor in America. She is also the first African American person to author a medical text. She challenged the prejudices of her time that prevented education and careers in medicine for women and people of color and, in the process, made better the lives of countless women, children, and the formally enslaved.
Rebecca Davis was born a free person in 1831 and spent her childhood in Pennsylvania. She was encouraged to go into the medical field by her aunt, the defacto doctor in their community. Crumpler frequently accompanied her aunt on visits to sick neighbors. She wrote, “I early conceived a liking for and sought every opportunity to be in a position to relieve the sufferings of others.”
In 1852, Rebecca moved to Massachusetts to train as a nurse, and for eight years, she assisted doctors in the Boston area. During this time, she married her first husband, Wyatt Lee.
In 1860, Rebecca enrolled in the New England Female Medical College, supported by the Wade Scholarship Fund, created by abolitionist Benjamin Wade. She became the first and only African American female medical student. Her acceptance was unique because, at the time, both Black men and women were barred from nearly every medical school.
Her education was interrupted when Wyatt Lee contracted tuberculosis. Upon his death in 1863, Rebecca reenrolled in medical school, and on March 1, 1864, she received her “Doctress of Medicine.” To put her achievement in context, in 1864, there were 54,543 doctors in America; 270 were white women, and 180 were African American men.
Daunting Life Lessons
In 1865, she married Arthur Crumpler and moved to Virginia. There Dr. Crumpler worked for the woefully underfunded Freedmen’s Bureau, the federal agency charged with assisting the transition from bondage to freedom.
The end of the Civil War resulted in an unimaginable health crisis because the newly emancipated did not have adequate housing or food. Segregated medical care allowed only 80 doctors and 12 hospitals to treat more than four million people.
Dr. Crumpler attended to the medical needs of more than 30,000 formerly enslaved people. The opportunity of treating such an unprecedented number of people provided her with significant opportunities to study diseases affecting women and children, later becoming her specialty.
For most of her career, Dr. Crumpler treated patients regardless of their ability to pay. Due to discrimination and racism, she struggled to get prescriptions filled, was often ridiculed, and had no admitting privileges to local hospitals.
Yet, despite these barriers, Dr. Crumpler wrote “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” published by Cashman, Keating & Company in 1883. Written from journal notes she kept of her medical experiences, the book focused on women and children, emphasizing prevention. It was divided into two sections; care for children to five years and prevention and cure of “the most distressing medical complaints.”
Although the book is primarily medical, Crumpler also gave non-medical advice on having a happy marriage. Scientific American magazine described “A Book of Medical Discourses” as the predecessor to the well-known “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler died on March 9, 1895, in Hyde Park. NY.
This Black History Month, let’s remember her courage, trailblazing achievements, and her “desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” She is a beautiful inspiration to everyone that faces adversity, seeks inclusion, and chooses to forge ahead against the odds.