Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born in Delaware on February 8th, 1831. She was raised in Pennsylvania by her aunt, who was known as a caretaker for the sick. A bright child, Crumpler moved to Massachusetts and attended the prestigious private school, the West Newton English and Classical School. Inspired by her aunt, she then moved to Charlestown to pursue a career in nursing.
As a nurse, she was encouraged by the different physicians she worked with to apply to medical school and several of them wrote her letters of recommendation. She was accepted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860. The following year, however, she was forced to relocate to Richmond, Virginia for a short period of time when the Civil War broke out. She moved back to Boston to continue her studies in medicine only to find that her scholarship had been rescinded. Nevertheless, she refused to give up and won the Wade Scholarship, which was a fund that had been established by the abolitionist Benjamin Wade. The New England Female Medical College faced much backlash from the medical community at its inception for accepting women, with the male physicians complaining that women lacked the physical strength to practice medicine and the field would be inappropriate for women’s “sensitive and delicate nature.” Furthermore, in 1860 when Crumpler began medical school, only 300 out of the 54,543 physicians in the United States were female, and none of them were Black.
In 1864, as the Civil War raged on, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree in the US. After obtaining her degree, she married Arthur Crumpler and they both moved to Richmond, Virginia to work at the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau was built in 1865 to help repair Civil War-torn communities. It provided food, housing, and medical services to thousands of recently freed slaves who were routinely denied access to these services by White physicians. While she was working at the Bureau, Dr. Crumpler endured extreme harsh treatment in the form of racism and sexism from fellow physicians. Some administrators at the Bureau would not grant her hospital privileges and some pharmacists would not honor her prescriptions. Nevertheless, in her book, she stated that working at the Bureau provided her with “ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children,” which became her passion.
In 1869, Dr. Crumpler and her husband returned to Boston and she opened up her practice on Beacon Hill. She served mostly Black families and children and did her work without expecting any payment in return. In 1880, she and her husband moved to Hyde Park, a neighborhood of Boston. It is unsure if she continued to practice medicine after the move. She published A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts in 1883 which is a 145-page collection of medical advice regarding the health of women and children. It was one of the first medical health prevention guides to contain this type of information. The book emphasized a variety of topics including washing and dressing a newborn, nutrition, breastfeeding, prevention of cholera in infants, management of diphtheria and measles, and burn treatment. She even talked about the health risks associated with the chewing and smoking of tobacco as well as the intake of alcohol such as brandy and gin, which were commonly used to numb pain. Astutely, she pointed out, “it is a great mistake to administer brandy, gin or any other alcoholic or narcotic stimulant to girls for the relief of pain.”
Dr. Crumpler passed away on March 9th, 1895. She was buried in Fairview Cemetery near her home in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, in an unmarked grave. In February of 2020, almost 125 years after her death, the Friends of the Hyde Park Library discovered this and began to fundraise for a proper tombstone for Dr. Crumpler. Additionally, there are no confirmed photos of her and various sources have mistakenly used a photo of one of the first Black nurses in the United States, Mary Eliza Mahoney.
The Resilient Sisterhood Project is delighted to feature Dr. Rebecca Crumpler as our last exemplary woman of grit, kindness, and resilience. We feel that her work embodies RSP’s ideas of healthy girls and women We encourage people to read the book online.