At a time when only a few Blacks and women were able to attend medical school, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler managed to blaze a path through the medical profession and even published a book about her work.
Born in 1831 in Delaware to Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber, Crumpler was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania who loved caring for sick neighbors. Young Rebecca’s choice of the profession must have been influenced by her aunt as she grew a liking and chance to relieve the sufferings of others.
“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,” she wrote.
By 1852 at the age of 21, Crumpler moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse for eight years without any formal training since the first formal school for nursing only opened in 1873.
In 1860, she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College becoming the school’s first and only Black graduating in 1864 as the first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree, and the only African American woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College, which later closed in 1873.
Inn 1883, Crumpler published her first book “A Book of Medical Discourses” detailing notes she kept during her medical career. The 145-page essay is one of the first American medical guides to offer advice for women and children.
The book even offers marital advice as it reads that one way to stay happily married “is to continue in the careful routine of the courting days until it becomes well understood between the two.”
Dr. Crumpler practiced in Boston for a while and after the Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia where she became acquainted with the diseases of women and children.
Although black physicians face constant racism working in the postwar South, however along with other black physicians, in the latter part of 1866 Crumpler would care for freed slaves who had no access to medical care, working with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and missionary and community groups.
She returned to Boston on Joy Street on Beacon Hill, where she began practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment. By 1880 she moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts, and was no longer in active practice.
On Mar. 9, 1895, at the age of 64 in Boston, Massachusetts Dr. Crumpler passed away. She will always be remembered for composing a work that was not only historic but also invaluably useful. And her legacy continues to inspire.
One of the first medical societies for African-American women, the Rebecca Lee Society, was named in her honor and her home on Joy Street is a stop on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
At Syracuse University there is a pre-health club named “The Rebecca Lee Pre-Health Society” which inspires people of diverse backgrounds to pursue health professions.