Sue Young Histories

Rebecca Lee Crumpler 1831 - 1895

September 06, 2007

rebecca lee crumpler Rebecca Lee Crumpler 1831 - 1895 worked from 1852-1860 as a nurse in Massachusetts, having graduated from New England Female Medical College, Boston in March 1864, as the first African American women to earn a medical degree.

From At its founding, the School of Medicine absorbed the New England Female Medical College, which supported the homeopathic approach to medicine. The School therefore had a large proportion of female medical students, and homeopathy was practiced in addition to more conventional medical treatments.

November, 1848:  Samuel Gregory opens with Israel Tisdale Talbot the Boston Female Medical College, the first medical school for women in the world. Twelve women enroll in the first class and graduate in

  1. Renamed the New England Female Medical College, this school for midwives was expanded in 1850 to include a full medical curriculum, and began to grant medical degrees to women. Reaction by the Boston medical establishment was swift and condemnatory. Members of this group charged that women had insufficient stamina to deal with the tension of medical practice. In response to this charge, Gregory asserted, “Suppose physicians were as ignorant upon this subject as females now are; they would then be easily alarmed and incapable of rendering efficient and in case of emergency…the fact of being one of the stronger sex does not render one competent…’

The School of Medicine graduated its first black student, Solomon Carter Fuller, in 1897; Dr. Fuller went on to become the first black psychiatrist in the United States.

On May 1, 1857, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children---the first hospital in the United States operated by women. In 1861 Quaker women founded the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia to provide the Female Medical Institute with better clinical opportunities. Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African-American female physician to graduate from a medical school when she finished studies at the New England Female Medical College in Boston in 1864.

From  Rebecca Lee Crumpler challenged the prejudice that prevented African Americans from pursuing careers in medicine to became the first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree, a distinction formerly credited to Rebecca Cole. Although little has survived to tell the story of Crumpler’s life, she has secured her place in the historical record with her book of medical advice for women and children, published in 1883.

Crumpler was born in 1831 in Delaware, to Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber. An aunt in Pennsylvania, who spent much of her time caring for sick neighbors and may have influenced her career choice, raised her. By 1852 she had moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse for the next eight years (because the first formal school for nursing only opened in 1873, she was able to perform such work without any formal training). In 1860, she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College. When she graduated in 1864, Crumpler was the first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree, and the only African American woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College, which closed in 1873.

In her Book of Medical Discourses, published in 1883, she gives a brief summary of her career path: “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.”

Dr. Crumpler practiced in Boston for a short while before moving to Richmond, Virginia, after the Civil War ended in 1865. Richmond, she felt, would 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.” She joined other black physicians caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have had no access to medical care, working with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and missionary and community groups, even though black physicians experienced intense racism working in the postwar South.

“At the close of my services in that city,” she explained, “I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration.” She lived on Joy Street on Beacon Hill, then a mostly black neighborhood. By 1880 she had moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts, and was no longer in active practice. Her 1883 book is based on journal notes she kept during her years of medical practice.

No photos or other images survive of Dr. Crumpler. The little we know about her comes from the introduction to her book, a remarkable mark of her achievements as a physician and medical writer in a time when very few African Americans were able to gain admittance to medical college, let alone publish. Her book is one of the very first medical publications by an African American.

When, in 1874, the New England female Medical College could not get Harvard to accept its merger offer, the college approached the newly opened homeopathic Boston University medical School.

The [sudden merger was made with] the college in the school of medicine of Boston University, which [was] under exclusive control of homeopaths. While this act may have involved no betrayal of trust in the legal sense, it certainly was an indefensible breach of trust toward those who had contributed funds to enable women to obtain a medical education in accordance with the tenants of the regular school. 31 The defection of the New England School was a blow to the legitimacy of the women’s medical colleges, and to the struggle to gain acceptance by the medical societies. The medical societies consistently pursued a course of non-recognition for female practitioners. Although the women’s medical schools were irregular without the state medical societies; approval, these societies still felt threatened:

They persist in the declaration that they are regulars to the letter, and the only boon they ask of the organized fraternity of physicians is to be recognized…The serious inroads made by female physicians in the obstetrical business, one of the essential branches of income to a majority of well-established practitioners, makes it natural enough to inquire what course is it best to pursue? All the female medical colleges have charters from the same sources from which our own emanate…and the law is no respecter of persons. 32