Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman doctor in the United States.  

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (then, Davis) was born to Absolum and Matilda Davis in Christiana, Delaware on Feburary 8th 1831. She was raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania who provided healthcare to her neighbors. By 1852, Davis was living in Charlestown, Massachusetts where she worked as a nurse for eight years. She then enrolled in the New England Female Medical College in 1860. Most medical schools at the time did not admit women or African Americans. However, in 1860, due to demands for medical care for Civil War veterans, opportunities increased. Additionally, there were only 300 female doctors, none of whom were African American, among the 54,000 physicians in the United States at the time. After her admission to the university, Davis won a tuition aware from the Wade Scholarship Fund. Davis graduated on March 1, 1864, four years after the completion of three years of coursework, a thesis, and oral examinations. She was the school’s only African American graduate.

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Rebecca Davis married Wyatt Lee, a Virginia native and former slave on April 19, 1852. One year following their marriage, Wyatt’s son, Albert, died at the young age of seven. His death was believed to be a motivator for Davis to begin studying nursing. While she was still a nursing student, her husband Lee died of tuberculosis on April 18, 1863. Two years later she married Arthur Crumpler in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada in 1864. Crumpler was formally enslaved in Southhampton County, Virginia. The couple went on to have one child, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler, born in 1870. 

Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston, specializing in the care of women and children. She primarily provided care to those of the lower class who could not afford care.

Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia, feeling that it would be “a proper field for real missionary work” where she could “relieve the suffering of others”. Additionally, she felt it was a good opportunity to learn more about diseases that affected women and children. At this time she was quoted saying, “She said of that time, “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.” There, she worked alongside other African American physicians with the Freedmen’s Bureau missionary groups, and community groups, to care for freed slaves who were regularly denied medical care by White physicians. During this time she was subject to racism by the administration and other male physicians, making it difficult for her to get prescriptions filled.

In 1869, Crumpler returned to Boston with her family and purchased a building on 67 Joy Street in Beacon Hill, a which was home to predominantly African-American community, where she would go on to live and practice medicine. She continued to treat children regardless of their parents’ ability to pay. This building now bears a permanent marker in her honor and is part of the Boston Freedom Trail Tour. 

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In 1883, Crumpler published Book of Medical Discourses, a medical guidebook primarily intended for women on the health care of their children and families. 

Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler died on March 9, 1895, at the age of 64, in the Hyde Park section of Boston and was buried in Fairview Cemetery. In 1989, Saundra Maass-Robinson, M.D. and Patricia Whitley, M.D. founded the Rebecca Lee Society, and organization which supports and promoted black women physicians. 

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            In honor of her 190th birthday, the mayor of Boston proclaimed February 8, 2021 Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day in the City of Boston. 

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In 2019, Virginia Governor Ralp Northam declared March 30th (National Doctors Day), Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day.

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