• 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.