Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, MD: Healing those with no access to care

Feb 20, 2021

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Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, MD, was the first African American female physician in the United States. She was born Rebecca Davis in Christiana, Delaware, in 1831. After being raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania, the informal healthcare provider in her community, Crumpler moved to Charleston, Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse for eight years.

The doctors she worked with recognized her talent and sent letters of recommendation to the New England Female Medical College. In 1860, she was admitted to the college, which was created to educate women on female health concerns. At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Crumpler was forced to relocate to Richmond. When she returned, the school's administrators had canceled her scholarship. Crumpler didn't give in to institutional racism and won tuition from the Wade Scholarship Fund established by the abolitionist Benjamin Wade.

Adversity continued for Crumpler. During her medical studies in 1863, her husband died of tuberculosis. At her final examination with two white women, she was accused of “slow progress” that led the practitioners to “hesitate very seriously in recommending her.” Because the examining practitioners didn't give evidence to substantiate their claims, she received her degree in 1864.

After the Civil War, she married Arthur Crumpler, a Union Army blacksmith who escaped slavery. The couple moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Dr. Crumpler took a job with the Freedmen's Bureau. Working alongside other African American physicians, Dr. Crumpler care for freed slaves who had no access to medical care.

Keenly interested in the study of the medical needs of women and children, Dr. Crumpler had plenty of work, reflecting, “I have access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 coloreds.”

After leaving Richmond, she returned to Boston inspired by her work. “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.”

In addition to her accomplishments as a medical doctor, Crumpler was the author of the 1883 Book of Medical Discourses in Two-Parts, which was the first African American academic textbook. The book guided women on how to care for themselves and their children. Crumpler writes, “My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody's mind the possibilities of prevention.”