Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler prioritized the most vulnerable

This is the thirty-third entry in the series Honoring Black History.

Given the often slow way in which systems of oppression—in this case, both white supremacy and the patriarchy—are broken down, it’s relatively surprising to discover that one woman, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, managed to to so much in her 64 years on this earth. She was the first Black woman to enter medical school in the United States and, upon graduation became the first Black woman physician. She was also the first Black woman to write a medical textbook—at a time when few Black people were even admitted into medical school—and the only woman to publish a medical book in the entirety of the 19th century! But even with all of those accolades, the thing that stands out most to me about Rebecca was her commitment to the most vulnerable.

Though born in Delaware, Rebecca was raised largely by her aunt in Pennsylvania. This aunt spent much of her time caring for the sick and infirm in her neighborhood, inspiring Rebecca to do the same. In 1852, at age 21, she moved to Massachusetts to pursue nursing and quickly made an impression on the doctors with whom she worked. Urged by her colleagues, who recognized her skill and intelligence, she applied to and was accepted by the New England Female Medical College in 1860. This was a huge deal because it was rare for either women or Black men to be accepted into medical school at the time, so admittance of a Black woman was quite literally unheard of. To put this in context, when she entered medical school, only 300 of the over 54,000 doctors in the U.S. were women; none were Black women.

After being named a Doctor of Medicine in March of 1864, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler began practicing medicine in Boston, primarily serving poor Black women and children. When the Civil War ended the following year, she relocated to Richmond, Virginia, which she believed was “a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” In her work with the Freedmen’s Bureau, she tended to newly freed slaves that were refused treatment by white doctors. Her patients were not the only ones on the receiving end of prejudice in those years, Dr. Crumpler was similarly snubbed or ignored by her white male colleagues, pharmacists, and others. Some apparently joked that the “M.D.” she earned really stood for “mule driver.” Frankly I’m glad their names have been lost to time; fuck them.

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Crumpler opted to return to Boston some time before the birth of her daughter in 1870. There, she continued her work with poor Black women and children from her practice at 67 Joy Street on Beacon Hill. Due to the nature of her clientele, Dr. Crumpler frequently worked pro bono. She retired from her practice in 1880 and relocated to Hyde Park. Three years later, she published A Book of Medical Discourses, which she dedicated to nurses and mothers. Its focus is on the medical care of women and children and it was a distillation of the notes she had kept throughout her many years in the medical field. Unlike many books by other Black authors, hers bore no introduction from a white male authority.

Throughout her career, Dr. Crumpler worked to improve the health (and lives) of poor Black women and children. Her devotion to the most vulnerable, even in the face of sustained abuse and threats is incredibly inspiring. So many of us are afraid to put our comfort on the line in service of others, let alone our livelihoods (or our lives). We have a lot to learn from brave, trailblazing Black women like Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

Further Reading

  1. Women’s History Month Honors Rebecca Lee Crumpler, M.D. First Black Female Physician in the United States, All Things in Mind, 2016
  2. Biography of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, National Library of Medicine, 2003


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