Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the medical pioneer of her time, the first African American woman to earn a degree in medicine as a physician. Born in Delaware in 1831 to Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber, little more has been recorded of Crumpler’s childhood but that she grew up in Pennsylvania under her aunt’s care and was influenced in her career choice by her aunt’s express caregiving to the ill in their community.
At 21, Crumpler moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts where she practiced nursing for eight years, just one of 300 known women in the medical field. She was unlicensed at the time as no former schooling in the subject existed until 1873, but the physicians for whom she worked so admired the passion in her care for others suggested that she attend school to further her career.
Under their recommendation she gained entrance into the New England Female Medical College with the assistance of a scholarship and graduated four years later, in 1864, as the first African American woman to achieve a Doctress of Medicine degree.
Her degree did come after some controversy as several professors held reservations against granting her certification, but this was rightly overturned due to the deference of the Trustees and abolitionist sentiments of the public at the time.
She started her practice in Boston, but traveled briefly to Richmond, Virginia after the Civil War ended in 1865, to meet a greater opportunity in treating women and children with less access to medical care. She remained for over a decade in Virginia, despite intense postwar racism, before returning to her Boston practice in the late 1870s.
Dr. Crumpler published her life’s work, the Book of Medical Discourses, in 1883, in which she noted of her career path, “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.”
There are no extant photos or other images to survive of Dr. Crumpler. The little we know about her comes from the introduction to her book, a remarkable account of her achievements as a physician and medical writer in a time when very few African Americans were able to gain admittance to medical college, let alone publish. Her book is one of the very first medical publications by an African American.