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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — February 2022: Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born in Christiana, Delaware in 1831 to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis. She was raised in Pennsylvania by her aunt who acted as the doctor in her community, caring for community members who fell ill. Inspired by her aunt, in 1852, Dr. Crumpler moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse for eight years.

In 1860, she was accepted to New England Female Medical College. When she graduated from medical school in 1864, Dr. Crumpler became 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 closed in 1873.

Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston until 1865, when the Civil War ended. She then moved to Richmond, Virginia, because, in her own words, she felt it would be "a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” There she served the 30,000 African-American residents of her community, many of whom were indigent. She provided medical care to anyone who requested treatment, regardless of their ability to pay for her services. Dr. Crumpler also worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau, joining other Black physicians caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have had no access to medical care. As a Black physician, she experienced intense racism working in the postwar South.

Dr. Crumpler also experienced intense sexism, as during this time many men believed that a man's brain was 10 percent larger than a woman’s brain on average, and that a woman's job was to act submissively and focus on her appearance. Because of this, many male physicians did not respect Dr. Crumpler, and would not approve her prescriptions for patients or listen to her medical opinions. Undeterred by this unjust treatment, Dr. Crumpler persevered and continued to work passionately and with dedication.

Dr. Crumpler later moved back to Boston to continue to treat women and children. In 1883, she published a renowned book, Book of Medical Discourses In Two Parts, believed by many to be the first medical text written by an African-American author. The book has two parts that cover the prevention and cure of infantile bowel complaints, and the life and growth of human beings. Dedicated to nurses and mothers, it focuses on maternal and pediatric medical care.

Dr. Crumpler died in 1895, leaving behind a grieving husband, Arthur Crumpler (who died in 1910), and a daughter. Initially buried in unmarked graves, on July 16, 2020, Dr. Crumpler and her husband received new granite headstones through funds raised to celebrate her status as a pioneer in the medical field.

Shortly before her death the Boston Globe wrote the following about her, “Dr. Rebecca Crumpler is the one woman who, as a physician, made an enviable place for herself in the ranks of the medical fraternity.”

The Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African-American women, was named in her honor. In 2019, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared March 30 (National Doctors Day) the Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day. At Syracuse University there is a pre-health club named "The Rebecca Lee Pre-Health Society.” This club encourages people of diverse backgrounds to pursue health professions.


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