Rebecca Lee Crumpler

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

Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler (February 8, 1831 – March 9, 1895) was an American physician. Rebecca Lee was the first African-American woman to become a physician in the United States.[nb 1] She married Dr. Arthur Crumpler after 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 Lee was born in Delaware[1] to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis. She was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who cared for infirm neighbors;[1][2] During the antebellum years, medical care for poor blacks was almost non-existent.[citation needed] She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, by 1852 and 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] 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][nb 3]

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.[1][4]


Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston,[1] 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 4]

Rebecca married Dr. Arthur Crumpler around the time of her graduation,[2] but by the time she moved back to Boston.[clarification needed] 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]

Later years[edit]

By 1880, her husband moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts. There was not great demand for her service in the community. She was no longer practicing medicine by 1883 when she wrote 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[5][6]

Crumpler died on March 9, 1895; according to her death certificate she was still a resident of Hyde Park. She was survived by her husband, Arthur.[2]


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.[7]

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 school closed in 1873, without graduating another black woman,[1][2] when it merged with Boston University.[citation needed]
  4. ^ 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 m "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 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. ^ Rebecca Crumpler (1883). A Book of Medical Discourses. Boston: Cashman, Keating. OCLC 14773801. 
  5. ^ Darlene Clark Heine; Kathleen Thompson. A Shining Thread of Hope. Crown/Archetype. p. 162. ISBN 0307568229. Retrieved April 17, 2015. 
  6. ^ Diaz, Sara (undated). "Crumpler, Rebecca Davis Lee (1831?–1895)". Retrieved April 17, 2015. 
  7. ^ "Beacon Hill". Boston Women's Heritage Trail. 

Further reading[edit]