Rebecca Lee Crumpler is widely considered by historians as the first African-American woman to become a physician in the states. While the fact has been disputed, Dr. Crumpler’s contributions to medicine and her will to challenge racial and sexist barriers has solidified her rightful place in history.
Crumpler was born February 8, 1831 in Christiana, Del. and raised primarily in Pennsylvania where her aunt cared for the sick. She moved to Charlestown, Mass. where she attended private school and married Wyatt Lee in 1852. Crumpler worked as a nurse during a time where adequate health care for poor African-Americans was rare.
Through hard work, Crumpler was accepted into the New England Female Medical College in 1860 ,which was unheard of at the time. The school made several exceptions for Crumpler, despite protests from members of the staff.
Crumpler’s husband passed in 1863 while she was still in school. Her studies stopped completely when the Civil War began. However, via a fund established by Ohio abolitionist Benjamin Wade, Crumpler re-entered school and completed her coursework in 1864. This made Crumpler the first African-American woman to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree and the only African-American to graduate from her medical school. That same year, she married Arthur Crumpler.
Crumpler established a practice in the Boston region, tending to poor African-American families, most especially women and children. She details much of her experiences as a physician in her 1883, A Book of Medical Discourses, one of the first such works by an African-American.
In the book, Crumpler describes being raised by an aunt who showed her kindness and compassion as her motivation to practice medicine for communities in need. She later moved to Richmond, Va. and worked with the Freedman’s Bureau before returning to her Beacon Hill home in Boston and establishing her practice for the poor there.
Crumpler passed on March 9, 1895. Her home is now part of the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail and the Rebecca Lee Society, established by Dr. Saundra Maass-Robinson and Dr. Patricia Whitley to honor Black women physicians in 1989.