By becoming the first African-American woman to earn an MD, Rebecca Lee Crumpler (born Rebecca Davis) paved the way for countless future physicians and medical professionals of color. Though Rebecca Cole was previously credited with this distinction, it was, in fact, Crumpler who earned this honor in 1864 (three years before Cole).
Born in Delaware in 1831, Crumpler’s parents were Absolum Davis and Matilda Weber. However, she was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania — a woman who cared for neighbors who had fallen ill. It’s believed that the time under her aunt’s care may have influenced her career choice. She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1852 and worked as a nurse from 21 until 29. She did so without formal training as the first nursing school would not open until 1873. She also married Wyatt Lee, a former slave, shortly after she arrived in Charleston.
Her efforts helped her gain acceptance and win a scholarship to the New England Female Medical College in 1860. During this time, her husband died of tuberculosis. Nevertheless, she persisted and graduated four years later, becoming the first and only African-American woman with a medical degree. She practiced for approximately a year in Boston before moving to Richmond, Virginia, at the close of the Civil War to help treat the recently freed slaves.
She hoped to use this experience to deepen her knowledge about diseases afflicting women and children. By working with missionary groups and the Freedmen’s Bureau, she found herself treating significant numbers of Black patients who otherwise would not have had access to care. She married again, this time to Arthur Crumpler. She stayed until the end of 1866, then returned to Beacon Hill in Boston and resumed her home-based practice, where she worked for more than a decade. While doing so, she studied mathematics at the West Newton English and Classical School and subsequently taught students in Delaware beginning in 1874.
By the time she approached age 60, she had retired from active practice and had moved to Hyde Park in Massachusetts. Using her notes from her time as a practicing physician, she penned a book of medical advice,“A Book of Medical Discourses,” published in 1883. In it, she drew on her life and medical experience to substantiate her recommendations. She passed in 1895 in Hyde Park, having left behind a rich legacy as a pioneering Black female physician.