Rebecca Lee Crumpler

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Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Born Rebecca Davis
(1831-02-08)February 8, 1831
Christiana, Delaware
Died March 9, 1895(1895-03-09) (aged 64)
Hyde Park, Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Fields Medicine
Alma mater New England Female Medical College
Known for First female African-American doctor

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, née Davis, (February 8, 1831 – March 9, 1895) was the first African American woman to become a physician in the United States.[nb 1] She married Arthur Crumpler who had served with the Union Army during the American Civil War. Her publication of A Book of Medical Discourses in 1883 was one of the first written by an African American about medicine.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

In 1831, Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis in Christiana, Delaware to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis.[4] She was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who cared for infirm neighbors.[1][2] Crumpler later attended the elite West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts where she was a "special student in mathematics." [5][6][7]


Nursing and medical school[edit]

She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1852.[6] During the next eight years, Crumpler was employed as a nurse[1][2][nb 2] until she was accepted into the New England Female Medical College in 1860.[1][2] It was rare for women or black men to be admitted to medical schools during this time.[2] That year, there were 54,543 physicians in the United States, 300 of whom were women. None of them were African American women.[6] She won a tuition award from the Wade Scholarship Fund, which was established by the Ohio abolitionist, Benjamin Wade.[8] After having completed three years of coursework and a thesis, she gave her final oral examinations in February 1864. On March 1, 1864, the board of trustees named her a Doctor of Medicine,[2] making her the first African American woman in the United States to earn the degree, and the only African American woman to graduate from New England Female Medical College.[1] The school closed in 1873, without graduating another black woman.[1][2] It merged with Boston University.


Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston,[2] primarily for poor women and children. During this time she "sought training in the 'British Dominion'".[2]

After the American Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, believing it to be "a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children. During my stay there nearly every hour was improved in that sphere of labor. The last quarter of the year 1866, I was enabled… to have access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored." Crumpler worked for the Freedmen's Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves; She was subject to "intense racism": "men doctors snubbed her, druggist balked at filling her prescriptions, and some people wisecracked that the M.D. behind her name stood for nothing more than 'Mule Driver'".[1][2][nb 3]

By the time she moved back to Boston, her neighborhood on Joy Street in Beacon Hill was a predominantly African American community. She "entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration."[1]

A Book of Medical Discourses[edit]

Crumpler, A Book of Medical Discourses

In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses from the notes she kept over the course of her medical career. It was dedicated to nurses and mothers,[1][2] and focused on the medical care of women and children.[9][10]

Crumpler describes the progression of experiences that led her to study and practice medicine in her A Book of Medical Discourses (1883):

It may be well to state here that, having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others. Later in life I devoted my time, when best I could, to nursing as a business, serving under different doctors for a period of eight years (from 1852 to 1860); most of the time at my adopted home in Charlestown, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. From these doctors I received letters commending me to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College, whence, four years afterward, I received the degree of Doctress of Medicine.[11][12]

Personal life[edit]

She married Wyatt Lee, a Virginia native on April 19, 1852.[6][13] He died of Phthisis pulmonalis (tuberculosis) on April 18, 1863 and is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Boston.[14]

In Saint John, New Brunswick, on May 24, 1865, Rebecca married Arthur Crumpler,[15][16] a former fugitive slave from Southampton County, Virginia. Born in 1824, he was the son of Samuel Crumpler, a slave of Benjamin Crumpler. Arthur lived on the neighboring estate of a large landowner, Robert Adams. He served with the Union Army at Fort Monroe, Virginia as a blacksmith, based upon his training and experience. He went to Massachusetts in 1862 and was taken in by Nathaniel Allen, founder of the West Newton English and Classical School, called the Allen School.[17][18]

Rebecca and Arthur were active members of the Twelfth Baptist Church where Arthur was a trustee, and in mid-December, 1870, their daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler, was born at their 20 Garden Street home.[19]

Crumpler spoke at a service for Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner upon his death in 1874. She read a poem that she had written for him, where "she touchingly alluded to his love for the gifted Emerson."[20] By 1880, Rebecca and Arthur moved to Hyde Park, Boston.[17]

Although "no photos or other images" of Crumpler survive,[1] a Boston Globe article described her as "a very pleasant and intellectual woman and an indefatigable church worker. Dr. Crumpler is 59 or 60 years of age, tall and straight, with light brown skin and gray hair."[21] About marriage, she said the secret to a successful marriage "is to continue in the careful routine of the courting days, till it becomes well understood between the two."[17]

Rebecca Crumpler died on March 9, 1895 in Fairview, Massachusetts, while still residing in Hyde Park.[17] She is buried at the Fairview Cemetery near her residence in Hyde Park.[22] Arthur died in Boston in 1910.[23][24]


The Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African-American women, was named in her honor.[2] Her home on Joy Street is a stop on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rebecca Cole was previously identified as the first African-American female physician. Subsequent research shows Crumpler was first (1864),[1] Cole second (1867) and Susan McKinney Steward third.[2][3]
  2. ^ Formal training was not required until nursing schools were established, which did not occur until 1873.[1]
  3. ^ The great need for medical providers encouraged other black people to join the medical profession. Black charitable organizations and white missionary organizations provided funding for the first black medical schools.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Biography". Changing the Face of Medicine. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved May 2, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Henry Louis Gates; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (March 23, 2004). African American Lives. Oxford University Press. pp. 199–200. ISBN 978-0-19-988286-1. Retrieved May 2, 2013. 
  3. ^ Vernon L. Farmer; Evelyn Shepherd Wynn (2012). Voices of Historical and Contemporary Black American Pioneers. ABC-CLIO. pp. 11–12. ISBN 978-0-313-39224-5. Retrieved May 3, 2013. 
  4. ^ "Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler". Changing the Face of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 29 January 2017. 
  5. ^ An illustrative biographical catalogue of the principals, teachers, and students of the West Newton English and Classical School, West Newton, Mass., 1854-1893; including an account of the reunions November 15, 1871 and June 21, 1893. (1895)
  6. ^ a b c d Dr. Howard Markel (April 7, 2016). "Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, first African-American woman physician". PBS. Retrieved February 22, 2017. 
  7. ^ "Allen Family Papers 1846-1915". Newton, Massachusetts. Retrieved February 22, 2017. 
  8. ^ "The Historical Contributions of African Americans to the Advancement of Health and Science". Congressional Record Vol. 146-Part 2: Proceedings and Debates of the 106th Congress Second Session. Government Printing Office. 2000. p. 2107. GGKEY:HL8BK2RDHWR. 
  9. ^ Darlene Clark Heine; Kathleen Thompson. A Shining Thread of Hope. Crown/Archetype. p. 162. ISBN 0307568229. Retrieved April 17, 2015. 
  10. ^ Diaz, Sara. "Crumpler, Rebecca Davis Lee (1831–1895)". Retrieved April 17, 2015. 
  11. ^ Gregory, MD, Samuel (1868). Doctor or Doctress?. Boston: Trustees of New England Female Medical College. p. 8. 
  12. ^ Crumpler, MD, Rebecca (1883). A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts. Boston: Cashman & Keating CO. p. 158. 
  13. ^ Wyatt Lee and Rebecca Davis marriage, Massachusetts, Marriage Records, 1840-1915. Massachusetts Vital and Town Records., April 19, 1852 
  14. ^ "Wyatt Lee, registered April 18, 1863, death April 17, 1863", Deaths in Boston, Town and City Clerks of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Vital and Town Records., 1863 
  15. ^ "Marriage announcements". The Religious Intelligencer. Saint John, New Brunswick. June 2, 1865. 
  16. ^ Caroline Rance (December 15, 2015). The History of Medicine in 100 Facts. Amberley Publishing Limited. p. PT139. ISBN 978-1-4456-5004-3. 
  17. ^ a b c d Anthony W. Neal (September 5, 2012). "Dr. Crumpler: Nation’s first African American woman physician". The Bay State Banner. Retrieved February 22, 2017. 
  18. ^ "Boston’s Oldest Pupil: He’s 74, and He Goes to the Evening School". The Boston Sunday Globe. April 3, 1898. p. 25. 
  19. ^ Massachusetts, Birth Records, 1840-1915, [Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler]
  20. ^ "The Colored People's Memorial". The News Journal. Wilmington, Delaware. March 17, 1874. p. 1 – via 
  21. ^ "Sets in Colored Society". Boston Daily Globe. July 22, 1894. p. 29. 
  22. ^ Adele Logan Alexander (December 18, 2007). Homelands and Waterways: The American Journey of the Bond Family, 1846-1926. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 286. ISBN 978-0-307-42625-3. 
  23. ^ Massachusetts, Death Index, 1901-1980, [Arthur Crumpler]
  24. ^ Massachusetts, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991. Suffolk. Probate Record Book, Vol 971-981, 1910-1911. [Arthur Crumpler].
  25. ^ "Beacon Hill". Boston Women's Heritage Trail. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Pfatteicher, S.K.A. (February 2000). "Crumpler, Rebecca Davis Lee". American National Biography Online
  • Neal, Anthony W. (9/5/2012). "Dr. Crumpler: Nation's first African American woman physician." The Bay State Banner
  • "Female Medical College of 100 Years Ago Had Two Professors and Not Even a Skeleton", O'Brien, Mary; Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960); Oct 21, 1948; p. 20
  • The "Doctress of Medicine" (in Latin, Medicinea Doctrix ) degree is the feminine form of "Doctor of Medicine" or 'Medicinae Doctor'. This form was used at New England Female Medical College and at Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in the 1860s. See "The Medical Profession: What Women Have Done in it" (1). Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine. January 1864. 

External links[edit]