Rebecca Lee Crumpler (née Rebecca Davis)
February 8, 1831 – March 9, 1895
Rebecca Davis was born free in Christiana, Delaware to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis. Sources do not specify the reason but Davis was raised in Pennsylvania by her aunt rather than her parents. Davis’ aunt was a kind woman who helped care for sick neighbors. Witnessing this example of informal but compassionate care had a profound impact on Davis. It inspired her to want to help others find relief from their suffering.
At the time, many women and Black people obtained little if any education. Yet, Davis was enrolled in prestigious private schools. During her childhood, Davis was deemed a “special student” and attended the West-Newton English School and the Classical School in Massachusetts.
After completing her education, Davis relocated to Charlestown in 1852 where she began work as a nurse. That year was also significant due to Davis’ marriage to Wyatt Lee. Over the next eight years, Davis provided care for patients and supported local doctors. In 1860, she applied to medical school with support from her doctor colleagues.
Davis’ acceptance to the New England Female Medical College (NEFMC) was a major accomplishment. At the time of her admission, there were 54,000 doctors in America. Only about 300 were women and all of those women were White. There were about 180 Black physicians and all were men. Most medical schools did not accept Black students and few accepted female students. Black people in the North still experienced discrimination and limitations. And many male physicians believed women were too delicate to practice medicine.
There were several obstacles in the path of Davis attending medical school but they worked themselves out. NEFMC was initially reluctant to allow Davis to attend but capitulated. Benjamin Wade, an Ohio abolitionist, had previously created a fund through which Davis won a scholarship that covered her tuition. After two years in medical school, Davis took a leave of absence to care for her husband who unfortunately died of tuberculosis in April 1863.
When Davis attempted to resume her studies, some of the faculty were resistant to her return. They felt the amount of time it was taking for her to complete her studies was disconcerting. Fortunately, some of the school’s patrons intervened on Davis’ behalf and she was readmitted. Upon completion of her studies and receiving her “Doctress of Medicine” on March 1, 1864, Davis became America’s first Black woman to earn an M.D.
Davis spent some time practicing medicine in Boston where she focused on the care of women, children, and poor people. Following the end of the Civil War, Davis moved to Virginia where she provided medical care for the newly freed. In 1865, Davis married Arthur Crumpler, and using both married names became Rebecca Lee Crumpler.
While Crumpler had been born free, both of her husbands had been enslaved. She was motivated to move to Virginia in part because she viewed working with the formerly enslaved as missionary work. Many formerly enslaved people lacked access to important resources which included medical care.
While in the South, Crumpler like other Black doctors and Black people in general had to contend with the overwhelming task of helping the Freedmen while navigating the openly hostile racism of the postwar years. Throughout her career in both the North and South, Crumpler would struggle with racism. She was unable to obtain admitting privileges at hospitals, pharmacists would decline to fill her prescriptions, and she faced discrimination from other healthcare professionals.
At the end of the decade, the Crumplers returned to Boston and settled in Beacon Hill’s North Slope which was primarily Black at the time. Their home at 67 Joy Street doubled as the location of Crumpler’s medical practice. She once again focused on providing medical care for women and children, even those who might be unable to pay. Crumpler’s marriage produced one daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler, but she likely passed away in infancy or childhood.
In 1880, the Crumplers moved to Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Three years later, Crumpler published A Book of Medical Discourses. The book was a health care guide that was geared towards her primary patients, mother’s caring for themselves and their children. Crumpler’s book was likely the first but certainly among the first medical guides to be written by a Black author.
The Crumplers later moved to Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood. It’s unclear when exactly Crumpler stopped practicing medicine. But it was likely sometime around their relocation. On March 9, 1895, Rebecca Lee Crumpler died of fibroid tumors at the age of 64. She was survived by her husband who later died in 1910.
For many years Crumpler’s legacy of achievement was lost to history. She and later her husband had been buried in Hyde Park’s Fairview Cemetery without headstones. It is likely that during her life Crumpler was unaware of her status as the first Black woman M.D. This fact was overlooked for years due to Rebecca Cole being mistakenly considered the first when she completed her degree three years after Crumpler.
No photos of Crumpler are known to exist but Google as well as books and articles feature images of a woman identified as Crumpler. The woman in the photo is the first Black licensed nurse in America, Mary Eliza Mahoney.
104 years after Crumpler’s death, Saundra Maass-Robinson, M.D. and Patricia Whitley, M.D. founded the Rebecca Lee Society. The organization celebrated Crumpler’s achievements and aimed to support Black women doctors. In 2019, Vicky Gall, a Boston history buff and supporter of the Hyde Park library, launched a fundraiser that obtain headstones for the Crumplers. Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s house at 67 Joy Street where she lived and practiced for years received a historical plaque and became a stop on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
- “Rebecca Lee Crumpler.” 2015. Changing the Face of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine / National Institutes of Health. June 3, 2015. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_73.html.
- Diaz, Sara. 2023. “Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler (1831-1895).” Blackpast.Org. March 25, 2023. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/crumpler-rebecca-davis-lee-1831-1895/.
- “Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (U.S. National Park Service).” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.nps.gov/people/dr-rebecca-lee-crumpler.htm.
- Markel, Howard. 2016. “Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, First African-American Woman Physician.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. March 9, 2016. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/celebrating-rebecca-lee-crumpler-first-african-american-physician.
- Rothberg, Emma. 2021. “Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.” National Women’s History Museum. October 1, 2021. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/dr-rebecca-lee-crumpler.
- Shmerler, Cindy. 2021. “Overlooked No More: Rebecca Lee Crumpler, Who Battled Prejudice in Medicine.” The New York Times. The New York Times. July 17, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/16/obituaries/rebecca-lee-crumpler-overlooked.html.
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