Rebecca Lee Crumpler

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

Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, née Davis, (February 8, 1831 – March 9, 1895) was an American physician. Rebecca 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[edit]

In 1831, Rebecca Davis was born 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] She later attended the elite West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts where she was a special student in mathematics.[4][5] During the antebellum years, medical care for poor blacks was almost non-existent. She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts where she married Wyatt Lee, a Virginia native on April 19, 1852.[6] During the next eight years she was employed as a nurse until she was accepted into the New England Female Medical College in 1860.[1][2][nb 2] It was rare for women or black men to be admitted to medical schools during this time.[2] Her husband Wyatt died in 1863 while she was still a medical student.[7][8] When the Civil War began, Crumpler was forced to quit her school. She went back to college in 1863, but her financial aid was no longer available. To complete school she won a tuition award from the Wade Scholarship Fund, which was established by the Ohio abolitionist, Benjamin Wade.[9]

When she graduated in 1864, Rebecca Lee (later Crumpler) was the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree, and the only African-American woman to graduate from New England Female Medical College.[1][10] The school closed in 1873, without graduating another black woman,[1][2] when it merged with Boston University.

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]


Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston,[13] primarily for poor women and children. During this time she "sought training in the 'British Dominion'".[2] In St. John, New Brunswick, on May 24, 1865, Rebecca married Arthur Crumpler, a former fugitive slave from Virginia who had served with the Union Army at Fort Monroe, Virginia.[4][14][15][16] 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][2] By the time she moved back to Boston her neighborhood in Joy Street 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] Rebecca and Arthur were also 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.[17]

Later years[edit]

When Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner died in 1874, Rebecca was in Delaware. At a service in his honor, "Rebecca Crumpler, MD read a beautiful original poem on the death of Sumner wherein she touchingly alluded to his love for the gifted Emerson."[18] By 1880 Rebecca and Arthur had moved to Hyde Park, Boston.[19] There was not great demand for her service in the community. She was no longer practicing medicine by 1883 when 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[20][21]

Although "no photos or other images" of Rebecca survive [1] a Boston Globe article described her this way. "She is 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."[22] A drawing of Arthur Crumpler, however, has survived. It appears in the feature article about him previously cited. Rebecca Crumpler died on March 9, 1895 and is buried at the Fairview Cemetery near her residence in Hyde Park.[23][24] She was survived by her husband, Arthur, who died in Boston in 1910.[25][26][27]


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.[28]

See also[edit]

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.[29]


  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 "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 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. ^ a b c U.S., High School Student Lists, 1821-1923, West Newton English and Classical School
  5. ^ Allen Family Papers 1846-1915
  6. ^ Massachusetts, Marriage Records, 1840-1915
  7. ^ Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915, [Wyatt Lee]
  8. ^ Wyatt Lee at Find a Grave
  9. ^ "Rebecca Lee Crumpler". Retrieved 2016-04-05. 
  10. ^ U.S., School Catalogs, 1765-1935. New England Female Medical College. [1860-1864]
  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. ^ Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929 (Allopath).
  14. ^ U.S., Civil War Draft Registrations Records, 1863-1865
  15. ^ Mary Anne Greene. 1906. Nathaniel T. Allen, Teacher, Reformer, Philanthropist. Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press. p.174.
  16. ^ “Boston’s Oldest Pupil: He’s 74, and He Goes to the Evening School,” The Boston Sunday Globe, April 3, 1898, p. 25
  17. ^ Massachusetts, Birth Records, 1840-1915, [Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler]
  18. ^ The News Journal, Wilmington, Delaware, Tuesday, 17 March 1874, p. 1
  19. ^ U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995: [Hyde Park, MA]
  20. ^ Darlene Clark Heine; Kathleen Thompson. A Shining Thread of Hope. Crown/Archetype. p. 162. ISBN 0307568229. Retrieved April 17, 2015. 
  21. ^ Diaz, Sara (undated). "Crumpler, Rebecca Davis Lee (1831–1895)". Retrieved April 17, 2015. 
  22. ^ "Sets in Colored Society", Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922); Jul 22, 1894; p. 29.
  23. ^ Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915 [Rebecca Davis Crumpler]
  24. ^ Rebecca Davis Crumpler at Find a Grave
  25. ^ Massachusetts, Death Index, 1901-1980, [Arthur Crumpler]
  26. ^ Arthur Crumpler at Find a Grave
  27. ^ Massachusetts, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991. Suffolk. Probate Record Book, Vol 971-981, 1910-1911. [Arthur Crumpler].
  28. ^ "Beacon Hill". Boston Women's Heritage Trail. 
  29. ^ "The Medical Profession: What Women Have Done in it" (1). Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine. January 1864.