ABWW Heroine of the Day: Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Rebecca Lee Crumpler graduated from the New England Medical College, becoming the first African- American woman medical doctor in 1864. Crumpler was born in Delaware, to Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber. An aunt in Pennsylvania, who spent much of her time caring for sick neighbors and may have influenced her career choice, raised her. By 1852 she moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse for the next eight years (because the first formal school for nursing only opened in 1873, she was able to perform such work without any formal training). In 1860, she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College. When she graduated in 1864, Crumpler was 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 merged with Boston University in 1873.

In her A Book of Medical Discourses(1883), Crumpler gives a summary of her career path: “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. Later in life I devoted my time, when best I could, to nursing as a business, serving under different doctors for a period of eight years (from 1852 to 1860); most of the time at my adopted home in Charlestown, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. From these doctors I received letters commending me to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College, whence, four years afterward, I received the degree of doctress of medicine.”

Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston for a short while before moving to Richmond, Virginia, after the American Civil War ended in 1865. In Richmond, she felt, 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. During my stay there nearly every hour was improved in that sphere of labor. The last quarter of the year 1866, I was enabled . . . to have access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored.” She joined other black physicians caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have had no access to medical care, working with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and missionary and community groups, even though black physicians experienced intense racism working in the postwar South.

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