Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. She graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864, during a time when the medical field was segregated and opportunities for Black people, particularly Black women, were extremely limited.
Crumpler’s journey to becoming a physician was not easy. Born in 1831 in Delaware, she was raised by her aunt, a free Black woman. Crumpler witnessed her aunt caring for sick neighbors, inspiring her love for medicine. Despite facing discrimination and limited opportunities, Crumpler was determined to pursue a career in medicine. In her book, she wrote, “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.” She went on to serve as a nurse from 1852 to 1860.The doctors she worked with wrote letters commending her to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College, where she received the degree of doctress of medicine.”
After working as a nurse for several years, Crumpler applied to medical school at the New England Female Medical College, the only school in the country to offer medical degrees to women at the time. She was awarded a scholarship to support her studies from a fund created by an Ohio abolitionist, and she persevered to graduate with her medical degree, officially, “Doctress of Medicine,” in 1864.
Crumpler’s achievement is a significant milestone for the African American community, as it proved the obvious: that Black women were capable of achieving great success in the medical field. After graduation, Crumpler worked as a physician in Massachusetts, treating both Black and white patients. She eventually found herself in Richmond, Virginia, providing medical care to former slaves. Working with the Freedmen’s Bureau, Crumpler aimed to center her practice around missionary and community groups.
She also wrote a book, “Book of Medical Discourses,” which was published in 1883. It was one of the first medical texts written by an African American and was aimed at helping women understand and care for their own health and the health of their children.
Despite her many achievements and Crumpler’s contributions to the field of medicine, her legacy is just now gaining recognition. Crumpler and her husband were initially buried in unmarked graves. However, in 2020, they received proper headstones, and the City of Boston issued a proclamation in her honor in 2021.
Today, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s legacy lives on as an inspiration to many who are interested in healthcare. Her groundbreaking achievement in the medical field was a crucial step in the long struggle for equity in healthcare for Black Americans. Contextualized more broadly, her legacy reflects the long struggle for equity in healthcare for Black Americans. She was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States and her determination, resilience, and contributions to the field of medicine serve as an inspiration for many. Her story continues to be an important part of Black History Month and her legacy continues to be celebrated today.