Though Black History Month as a concept is imperfect, it does remind us that the history we learn in school isn’t actually the whole story. Even in public health, most of the revered pioneers are white males: John Snow, Walter Reed, Joseph Goldberger (of pellagra scab-eating fame). As part of my 28 day writing challenge, which coincidentally falls during Black History Month, I plan to highlight some of Black Americans’ contributions to public health, medicine, and wellness. This post is a brief biosketch of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American woman to earn an MD. Around 1833, Rebecca Crumpler, born Rebecca Lee, was born to free parents in Delaware. Crumpler was raised by her aunt, who cared for the sick in their community. Because of this proximity to healing, Crumpler decided to dedicate her life to medical care. She worked for eight years as a nurse, and the doctors with whom she worked wrote her medical school recommendation letters.
Crumpler attended the New England Female Medical College, where she recieved a Doctress of Medicine (MD) degree in 1864. At the end of the Civil War, she moved to Richmond, VA. There she found “a proper field for real missionary work...ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” She worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau alongside other Black doctors, caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have no way to obtain medical care.
She later moved to Boston, with her new husband Arthur Crumpler, and started a medical practice for women children regardless of their ability to pay. She practiced in Boston from 1869 to 1880, when she retired to write one of the first medical texts written by an African American, “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.” The book focused on her specialty, women’s and children’s health.
Her book also included a little dating and marriage advice, as well. She instructs that “it is best for a young woman to accept a suitor who is respectable, vigorous, industrious, but a few years her senior, if not equal age.” The key to a successful marriage: “continue the careful routine of the courting days.”
Crumpler died in 1895. She was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. She defied others’ expectations based on her race and gender, and used her skills and passion to help relieve suffering. Though nearly everything we know about her comes from the introduction to her book, the sliver of knowledge we have of Crumpler’s life is more than enough to prove she was an extraordinary woman.