Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born in Delaware in 1831. She was raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania, who often spent time caring for sick neighbors. Inspired by her aunt, Crumpler began working as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1852. During her eight years as a nurse, she impressed many of the doctors that she worked with. These doctors eventually encouraged her to apply to medical school and wrote letters of recommendation.
In 1860, Crumpler began medical school at the New England Female Medical College. This school was the first in the U.S. to train female doctors. They received much criticism, with many people claiming that women were too frail or not intelligent enough to practice medicine. She graduated in 1864 as the first Black woman to receive an M.D. in the United States. At the time, only 300 of the 54,543 physicians in the U.S. were women, and none of them were Black. Her title was “doctress of medicine”.
Crumpler began her practice treating mostly women and children in the Boston area. After the Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia. She worked with the Freedman’s Bureau to provide healthcare for recently freed slaves and other poor citizens. During this time, she faced intense racism and sexism, including administrators who didn’t allow her to admit patients and pharmacists who would not fill prescriptions she ordered. Nevertheless, she described that experience as “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.”
Crumpler returned to Boston in 1869 and practiced from her home in a predominantly Black neighborhood in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. She provided care for many women and children, regardless of whether they could pay. In 1883, Crumpler published “A Book of Medical Disclosures,” making her one of the first African American authors of a medical book. The book is based on notes from her years as a practicing physician and focuses on health advice for women and children.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was a true pioneer, facing numerous challenges as she broke down barriers for women of color in medicine. Until recently, her life has remained in the historical shadows. There are no surviving pictures of her, and much of the information about her life comes from the introduction of her book. On July 16th, 2020, there was a ceremony held at Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park, Boston to mark her gravestone, spearheaded by the Friends of Hyde Park Library. Her former home on Joy Street in Beacon Hill is part of the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
Jaclyn Long is a first year Ph.D. student in the Immunology Program at Harvard Medical School.
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