Welcome to America Comes Alive!, a site I created to share little-known stories of America’s past. These stories are about Americans—people just like you—who have made a difference and changed the course of history. Look around the site and find what inspires you.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), Physician

• First African American woman to earn a medical degree at a time when advanced education for women was rare.
• Wrote Book of Medical Discourses about medical care for women and children.

Rebecca was born free (not into slavery) in Delaware in about 1833 to Absolum and Matilda Davis. She was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania who had a profound effect on Rebecca. The aunt was the person in the community to whom everyone came for medical assistance, and as a result of watching her aunt, Rebecca wrote that when she began work she knew it had to be in a field where she could “relieve the sufferings of others.”

Rebecca moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts where she became a nurse (1852-1860); there were no schools of nursing at that time, so she learned on the job. She impressed the doctors with whom she worked, and they submitted letters recommending that she be admitted to the New England Female Medical College. Her acceptance at the college was highly unusual as there were few medical schools and most did not admit African Americans.

She started classes in 1860 but her studies were interrupted by the Civil War so she did not graduate until 1864. When she did, she became the first African American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree, and the only African American woman to ever graduate from the New England Female Medical College.

Rebecca began a medical practice in Boston, but when the war ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia to help the freed slaves who otherwise would have had no access to medical care. She noted that it would be “a proper field for real missionary work,” and it was; racism was widespread.

In 1869, she and her husband (she married Arthur Crumpler–I inadvertently noted that he was a doctor as some of the research shows; he was not, see correction below) returned to Boston and established a practice in Boston at 20 Garden Street. Rebecca specialized in caring for women and children. By 1880 the Crumplers had moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts, and she began work on her book which was based on journals she kept during her years of active practice. In 1883 Book of Medical Discourses was published; the book was written for women to provide them with information to understand how to care for the health of their families.

Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler died in 1895 in Fairview, Massachusetts.

No photos or other images of Dr. Crumpler survive from her lifetime. The little we know about her comes from the introduction to her book. Though her story was not known for many years, today she is recognized for her groundbreaking achievements. In 1989 two women physicians founded the Rebecca Lee Society, an organization which supports and promotes black women physicians. Today there is an Association of Black Women Physicians, and a scholarship is still given in the name of Rebecca Lee.

I have recently added the story of her husband, Arthur Crumpler. This story was brought to my attention by H. Lee Price, a mathematician who became interested in the Crumplers. Thank you, Lee!

Correction: In 2012 I heard from Anthony W. Neal who has done extensive research on Rebecca Crumpler, and he kindly wrote to inform me of what he has learned.  In the article above, I have now corrected the date of birth and her Boston address, but his correction on Arthur Crumpler can be expanded upon.  Neal checked city directories, census lists, and then hit pay dirt with an article about an Arthur Crumpler that appeared in the Boston Globe on April 3, 1898.  Anthony Neal reveals the results of his research on Arthur Crumpler in an article in the Bay State Banner, and his article gives a more complete understanding of Rebecca Crumpler as well as the life of African Americans in the northeast in the late 1900s.  I recommend that you read it.

18 thoughts on “Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), Physician”

  1. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born February 8, 1831. She practiced medicine out of her home at 20 Garden Street, not Joy St.(Check the city of Boston directories of 1870 and 1872.) Her husband Arthur Crumpler was not a doctor, he was a blacksmith and then a porter, working at 122 Tremont St. The couple had a daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler, born in December 1870.

  2. In his article in the Boston Globe: “Boston’s Oldest Pupil: He’s 74, and He Goes to the Evening School,” The Boston Sunday Globe, April 3, 1898, p. 25, Arthur Crumpler said he was a blacksmith before he moved to Boston. The City of Boston Directory of 1870 lists him as a porter working at 122 Tremont Street. On his daughter Lizzie Sinclair’s birth register, Arthur Crumpler’s occupation, oddly enough, is listed as jeweler. See Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988 [database on-line] (accessed December 27, 2012).

  3. There is a citation from Ancestry.com. U.S., High School Student Lists, 1821-1923 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA, that lists Rebecca Crumpler’s husband Arthur as a physician.

  4. After reading Tony Neal’s article that states all his research, I am inclined to feel that the mix-up was because the “Dr.” of the family was actually the wife. Some people assumed Dr. referred to the husband. I stand by Tony Neal’s research. Thank you for citing the additional source though!

  5. This Article gave me a lot of insight in Rebecca Lee Crumplers life. Although I am a little confused on whether if Rebecca’s husband was a physician or a jeweler

  6. Anthony Neal has done the most extensive research on the couple, and I believe what he has discovered is as accurate as we can get:
    Arthur was a blacksmith before they moved to Boston. He became a porter when they first settled in, and then he must have taken up the jewelry trade later. Here’s Neal’s response:

    In his article in the Boston Globe: “Boston’s Oldest Pupil: He’s 74, and He Goes to the Evening School,” The Boston Sunday Globe, April 3, 1898, p. 25, Arthur Crumpler said he was a blacksmith before he moved to Boston. The City of Boston Directory of 1870 lists him as a porter working at 122 Tremont Street. On his daughter Lizzie Sinclair’s birth register, Arthur Crumpler’s occupation, oddly enough, is listed as jeweler. See Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988 [database on-line] (accessed December 27, 2012). –

  7. How shameful that the generations lose their quality of what is historically pertinent while preparing in school for their futures! This should be known by everyone in the United States.

  8. There is a Fairview, Mass. Someone said there wasn’t.

    Were there not photograph’s taken of students at the medical college?

  9. Because photography was in its infancy, the only early pictures of the school I have seen are sketches of the buildings. There is a photo floating on the Internet that may be Rebecca Lee Crumpler, but right now I have no verification so I have not posted it. Thank you for posting!

  10. i love this cite even though i have only been on it once it show great facts that i use in everyday life.

  11. Thank you! I write about the things that make me curious, so I’m delighted you are enjoying it.


  12. I believe Rebecca Lee Crumpler died in Hyde Park and is buried in the Fairview Cemetery near there. I think her last name at birth was “Davis”; her first husband was “Lee” (who reportedly died while she was still in medical school)and her second husband was “Crumpler”. I would love to see a copy of the reference given by Mr. Neal as to the location of her practice being at 20 Garden Street in the Beacon Hill area of Boston and wonder about the more oft-reported location of Joy Street (also in Beacon Hill). Could both have been correct at different points in time, I wonder?

    The New England Female Medical College supported the homeopathic approach to medicine. After the merger with Boston University, some form of homeopathy was practiced in addition to more “conventional” medical treatments and the homeopathic approach was not fully abandoned, apparently, until after World War I (from what I have read).

  13. Thank you so much for your information. In the last week, I have had one person contact me with some additional information about Arthur as well as Rebecca. I am in the process of documenting Arthur’s story, and over the next month I’m going to re-examine all that I have on Rebecca. I believe Tony Neal checked City Directories, but I will try to trace his path and verify the information he provided.

    I did not know that the New England Female Medical College was homeopathic but that means I need to re-answer one of the people who posted earlier.

    I truly appreciate your interest and added material. I will email you when we have puzzled through this profile again and have verified all that we have thus far.

    It’s wonderful that Rebecca and Arthur Crumpler generate so much interest. I tip my hat to the people they were, and I will try to them full justice.

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