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Rebecca Lee Crumpler, First Black Female 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 Davis Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) was born free in Delaware in the early 1830s to Absolum and Matilda Davis who were free African Americans.

Courtesy of Friends of the Hyde Park Library

Rebecca 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, She had no medical training, but she studied under other women who knew what to do about cuts, broken bones, and illnesses. 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.”

Becomes Nurse

In 1852, Rebecca Davis (her maiden name) moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts where she became a nurse. There were no nursing schools at that time, so she learned on the job. She impressed the doctors with whom she worked. Several of them were so impressed by her skill and instinct that they submitted letters to the New England Female Medical College requesting that she be admitted. (The college was founded in 1848 by Samuel Gregory to train women to assist with childbirth. In 1874 it merged with Boston University to become Boston University School of Medicine.) Because the school had only accepted white women, many were surprised when Rebecca was accepted. There were few medical schools in the 1850s. Those that existed did not admit Blacks.

Rebecca Lee, now married to her first husband Wyatt Lee, started classes in 1860 but her studies were interrupted by the Civil War. Those who taught at the school and those enrolled as students paused so that they could help tend to the sick and wounded.

Her husband, Wyatt, died in 1863, but Rebecca Lee persevered and returned to school. She became the first African American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. This of course meant that she was the first Black woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College.

Moves to Virginia to Aid Freemen

Rebecca began a medical practice in Boston, but when the war ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia. She heard how desperate the need was among newly freed Blacks. White doctors refused to help them, so others like Rebecca were vital in providing medical care.

She told friends in Boston that it would be “a proper field for real missionary work,” and it was; racism was widespread. She worked in Virginia for two years. Then she returned to her home to re-open a practice in Boston.

Crumpler Establishes Practice in Boston

By 1869, Rebecca met and married her second husband, Arthur Crumpler. The couple moved back to Boston where she established a medical office at 20 Garden Street. She continued to focus her practice on caring for women and children.

By 1880, the Crumplers had moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts. Dr. Crumpler knew that there were no books about women’s health that were written for laypeople. After settling in their new home in Hyde Park, she began work on the book she felt women should have. She based her stories and advice 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.

Recognition Later in Life

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.

The reverse side of Dr. Crumpler’s tombstone; Friends of Hyde Park Library

In addition, the community of Hyde Park realized the Crumplers should be better recognized. Rebecca and her husband Arthur were buried in Fairview Cemetery, but the writing on their tombstones had worn away. The Friends of the Hyde Park Library and teh Hyde Park Historical Society worked together to raise funds for tombstones to mark the graves of both Rebecca Crumpler and Arthur Crumpler. Many of the donations came from individuals. When Dr. George Q. Daley, Dean of Harvard Medical School, heard about hte project, he contacted the deans of other medial schools in the area (Boston University, University of Massachusetts, and Tufts University). All donated, recognizing that the Hyde Park Library Friends’s effort was a fitting tribute to a woman who was a trailblazer for women in medicine.

The medical school at the University of Oklahoma also contacted me in search of descendants, as they were planning to name a wing in memory of Dr. Rebecca Crumpler.

Personal Thanks

With some of my articles, I am fortunate to hear from relatives or others who have additional information on the topic on which I have written. The article on Rebecca Crumpler generated a lot of interest as well as help from those who knew more about her life than I was able to find.

Anthony W. Neal, a Boston attorney who also writes for the newspaper The Bay State Banner, was in touch to clarify a few points of confusion on Rebecca Crumpler’s life. The above article reflects those changes. 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.

Arthur Crumpler‘s story is now posted on my site, too. This story was brought to my attention by H. Lee Price, a mathematician who became interested in the Crumplers. Thank you, Lee!

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22 thoughts on “Rebecca Lee Crumpler, First Black Female 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. Jonathan Davidson

    Is there any evidence that Dr. Crumpler used homeopathy or advocated it in her book?

  3. 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).

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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

  7. 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). –

  8. 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.

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

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

  10. 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!

  11. Pingback: Women in Medicine Review | Medcare Review Blog

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

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

    Kate

  15. 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).

  16. 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.

  17. Pingback: Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), Physician | My Eclectic Writings

  18. Pingback: Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler MD. – sustainable black girl

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