Black History Month: Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler

Today is the 177th anniversary of the birth of Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, the first black woman in America to graduate from medical school and practice as a physician. [Early sources say that this distinction belongs to Rebecca Cole; however, it appears that Crumpler graduated several years before Cole]. Sources say she was born in Delaware and that her parents were Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber.

Apparently, little biographical matter exists about Rebecca Crumpler. It is known from her own writings that as a child she spent much time with an aunt in Pennsylvania who attended to the sick and may have been either a nurse or a midwife. In 1852, Rebecca moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse. She worked for various doctors for the next eight years.

In 1860, several of the doctors she worked for wrote letters recommending Rebecca to the New England Female College of Medicine. This was the world’s first medical school for women [it later merged with Boston University to become Boston University School of Medicine--the first coeducational medical school in the world]. Rebecca was accepted and graduated in 1864. One of her professors was another pioneering woman physician, Dr. Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska.

After graduation, Dr. Crumpler remained in the Boston area for awhile. But when the Civil War ended, she moved to Virginia to help poor people, mostly black, who had been affected by the war. She was married to a black physician, Dr. Arthur Crumpler.

At some point, exactly when is not clear, the Crumplers returned to the Boston area. They appear on the 1870 census living in Boston, and on the 1880 census living in Hyde Park, Massachusetts.

In 1883, Rebecca Crumpler wrote a book titled A Book of Medical Discourses, which was a reference book for women as well as guide to public health issues.

For a woman physician, finding work in the latter part of the nineteenth century was difficult, as even Dr. Crumpler’s white female colleagues were discovering. For black physicians, work was not easy to find, either. By the time she wrote her book, Rebecca Crumpler was no longer actively practicing medicine. On the 1880 census, her occupation is listed as “keeping house,” and her husband was said to be a “porter.”

Rebecca Crumpler died in 1895 at the age of 64.

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Craig

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