Biography of Rebecca Lee Crumpler, First Black Female Physician in U.S.

She also published a respected medical text

A Book of Medical Discourses, by Rebecca Lee Crumpler.
A Book of Medical Discourses, by Rebecca Lee Crumpler. US National Library of Medicine

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (Feb. 8, 1831—March 9, 1895) is the first Black woman to earn a medical degree and practice medicine as a physician in the United States. She was also the first Black woman to author a medical text, "A Book of Medical Discourses," which was published in 1883. Though she faced both intense racial and gender discrimination, Crumpler attended to the medical needs of thousands of formerly enslaved people in Richmond, Virginia—the former capital of the Confederacy—just after the Civil War, and earned the respect of many in the medical profession.

Fast Facts: Rebecca Lee Crumpler

  • Known For: First Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States and for publishing a well-respected medical text.
  • Also Known As: Rebecca Davis, Rebecca Davis Lee
  • Born: February 8, 1831, in Christiana, Delaware
  • Parents: Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis
  • Died: March 9, 1895, in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Education: New England Female Medical College, Doctor of Medicine, March 1, 1864
  • Published Works: "A Book of Medical Discourses" (1883)
  • Spouses: Wyatt Lee (April 19, 1852–April 18, 1863)​; Arthur Crumpler (May 24, 1865–March 9, 1895)​
  • Children: Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler
  • Notable Quote: "(Richmond, Virginia was) 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." 

Early Life and Education

Rebecca Davis was born on February 8, 1831, in Christiana, Delaware, to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis. However, Davis was actually raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who provided care for sick people. Her aunt's work in the medical field would have an abiding influence on Davis for the rest of her life, as she later wrote in "A Book of Medical Discourses":

"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."

In 1852, Davis moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, married Wyatt Lee, and took his last name, changing her name to Rebecca Davis Lee. That same year, she was also hired as a nurse. In Charlestown and nearby communities, Davis Lee worked for several doctors, whom she greatly impressed. Indeed, the doctors were so taken with her abilities that they recommended her for the New England Female Medical College—one of the few in the United States accepting women at the time, let alone a Black woman. As Davis Lee described it:

"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."

The school had been "founded by Drs. Israel Tisdale Talbot and Samuel Gregory in 1848 and accepted its first class, of 12 women, in 1850," according to Dr. Howard Markel, in his 2016 article, "Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, First African-American Woman Physician," published on the PBS Newshour website. Markel noted that there was strong opposition in the medical community to the school, particularly from male doctors:

"From its inception, many male physicians derided the institution, complaining that women lacked the physical strength to practice medicine; others insisted that not only were women incapable of mastering a medical curriculum and that many of the topics taught were inappropriate for their 'sensitive and delicate nature.'"

Even 10 years later in 1960, when Davis Lee enrolled in the New England Female Medical College, there were only 300 female physicians out of nearly 55,000 medical doctors in the United States, Markel noted. Davis Lee "was not always treated fairly by her professors, but she worked hard and completed her courses," according to Sheryl Recinos in her book, "Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler: Doctress of Medicine." Recinos further wrote of Davis Lee's experience in medical school:

"(She) knew that she had to work harder than her peers, a lot harder than white men, to become a physician. In those days, white men could take one or two classes at college and call themselves a docor. But (Davis Lee) knew that she needed a lot more training to be taken seriously."

The curriculum included classes in chemistry, anatomy, physiology, hygiene, medical jurisprudence, therapeutics, and theory, Recinos explained in her book, noting that Davis Lee "encountered racism throughout her studies."

Additionally, Davis Lee's husband, Wyatt, died of tuberculosis in 1863, while she was still in medical school. She found herself a widow and short on funds to continue her education. Fortunately, she won a scholarship from the Wade Scholarship Fund, an organization funded by North American 19th Century anti-enslavement activist Benjamin Wade. Despite all the difficulties, Davis graduated from medical school after four years, becoming the first Black woman to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree in the United States.

Dr. Crumpler

After graduating in 1864, Davis Lee established a medical practice in Boston for poor women and children. In 1865, Davis Lee married Arthur Crumpler, a formerly enslaved man who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War and who worked as a blacksmith during and after the war. When the Civil War ended in 1865, Davis Lee—now known as Rebecca Lee Crumpler after her marriage in May of that year—relocated to Richmond, Virginia. She argued that it was “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."

Soon after her arrival in Richmond, Crumpler began working for the Freedmen’s Bureau as well as other missionary and community groups. Working alongside other Black physicians, Crumpler was able to provide health care to formerly enslaved people. Crumpler experienced racism and sexism. She describes the ordeal she endured by saying, "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.'"

By 1869, Crumpler had returned to her practice in Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood, where she provided medical care to women and children. In 1880, Crumpler and her husband relocated to Hyde Park, located in the southern part of Boston. In 1883, Crumpler wrote "A Book of Medical Discourses." The text was a compilation of the notes she had taken during her medical career and gave advice on treating illnesses in infants and young children and women of childbearing age—but it also included a few brief autobiographical notes about Crumpler's life, some of which are quoted in previous sections of this article.

Death and Legacy

Crumpler died on March 9, 1895, in Hyde Park. It is thought that she did not practice medicine during her last 12 years of life in Hyde Park, though records are scarce, particularly on this part of her life.

In 1989, physicians Saundra Maass-Robinson and Patricia Whitley established the Rebecca Lee Society. It was one of the first Black medical societies exclusively for women. The purpose of the organization was to provide support and promote the successes of Black women physicians. Also, Crumpler’s home on Joy Street has been included on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

In July 2020, Crumpler—who had lain in an unmarked grave in Hyde Park since she died in 1895 and next to her husband's unmarked grave since he died in 1910—finally received a headstone honoring her legacy. During what was described as a "poignant" ceremony 125 years after Crumpler's death, Dr. Joan Reede, Harvard Medical School's dean of diversity and community partnership, proclaimed:

“She navigated a threshold and wall that continues to challenge us. Dr. Crumpler was a dreamer who showed a fortitude and belief in self, a belief that she could and should make a difference in the world.”

But, perhaps Crumpler's gravestone, itself, best describes her legacy:

"(On the front of the headsone:) Rebecca Crumpler 1831-1985: The First Black Woman to Earn a Medical Degree in the U.S. 1864. (On the backside of the headstone:) The Community and the Commonwealth's four medical schools honor Dr. Rebecca Crumpler for her ceaseless courage, pioneering achievements and historical legacy as a physician, author, nurse, missionary and advocatd for health equity and social justice."

Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. Crumpler, Rebecca Lee. A Book of Medical Discourses: in Two Parts. Forgotten Books., 2017.

  2. Markel, Dr. Howard. “Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, First African-American Woman Physician.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 9 Mar. 2016.

  3. Recinos, Sheryl. Rebecca Lee Crumpler: Doctress of Medicine. Water Bear Press, 2020.

  4. WOLFPACC Center.” WOLFPACC, wolfpacc.com.

  5. Joshi, Deepika. “Celebrating Black Excellence: Rebecca Lee Crumpler.” Centreville Sentinel, 22 Feb. 2019.

  6. MacQuarrie, Brian. “Gravestone Dedicated to the First Black Female Medical Doctor in the US - The Boston Globe.” The Boston Globe, 17 July 2020.

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Lewis, Femi. "Biography of Rebecca Lee Crumpler, First Black Female Physician in U.S." ThoughtCo, Dec. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/rebecca-lee-crumpler-biography-45294. Lewis, Femi. (2020, December 11). Biography of Rebecca Lee Crumpler, First Black Female Physician in U.S. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rebecca-lee-crumpler-biography-45294 Lewis, Femi. "Biography of Rebecca Lee Crumpler, First Black Female Physician in U.S." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rebecca-lee-crumpler-biography-45294 (accessed October 20, 2021).