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Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Rebecca Lee Crumpler had one aim in life: to relieve the sufferings of others. And no amount of prejudice was going to stop her.
Yet, for too long no one has known her name, nor anything about what she accomplished despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
Rebecca Lee was born in Delaware in 1831, the daughter of Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber, but she would be raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania. These were the decades before the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, and while Pennsylvania was then a Northern "free state" -- meaning it did not allow slavery -- most white doctors refused to see black patients. Rebecca's aunt was a sought-after healer and nurse for her local African-American community. Rebecca, it appears, wished to follow her aunt’s example. But she aspired to a higher goal: she wanted to be a doctor.
For a black woman to even dream of becoming a medical professional in those days required a huge leap of faith. In the 1850s, when Rebecca began to pursue her studies, only 300 of the 50,000 doctors in the United States were women, and they were all white. No female black doctor had ever been graduated. But these odds would not deter Rebecca. It simply meant she would have to work harder, which she was fully prepared to do.
In her 20s, Rebecca moved to Charlestown in Massachusetts to work as a nurse, thus acquiring practical experience in medicine. In her spare time, she studied at the newly established West-Newton English and Classical School. The all-white administration admitted her as a "special student," impressed with her intelligence and confidence. Indeed, the rallied behind her. If Rebecca failed to become a doctor, it would not be due to a lack of general preparation.
In 1860, at the age of 29, Rebecca applied to medical school, boasting credentials that bested most of her white peers. She earned a place at the New England Female Medical College, then barely a decade old. When it opened in 1848, male doctors mocked it, claiming that women were too "sensitive and delicate" to study the human body. Despite such chauvinistic opposition, the Female Medical College remained open and, soon enough, began to graduate women.
As the first shots of the Civil War were fired, Rebecca Lee became the first black woman ever admitted to medical school in the United States of America.
Little is known about Rebecca Lee's personal experience at the New England Female Medical College. Like her classmates, she studied 30 hours a week, mastering a plethora of courses ranging from anatomy to chemistry, and was required to prepare a medical thesis. Despite the difficult curriculum and the loneliness she must have felt as the only black student, Rebecca Lee graduated in 1864, becoming the first African-American physician in United States history.
In 1864, Rebecca married Arthur Crumpler and opened a medical practice in Boston. The following year, with the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the couple relocated to Richmond, Virginia where Dr. Crumpler worked with the Freedman's Bureau. There, she provided treatment and advice to newly freed slaves who would otherwise have had no access to medical care.
In 1869, Dr. Crumpler returned to Boston, living in the mostly-black neighborhood of Beacon Hill and practicing medicine until 1880, regardless of whether or not her patients were able to remunerate her for her services. Drawing on her decades of experience in medicine, she cemented her legacy by publishing A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts in 1883.
When Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler passed away in New York in 1895, history promptly forgot about its first African-American physician. In the 1950s, her 1883 publication was rediscovered and so was her incredible contribution to society. The little we know about her today comes from the book’s introduction, which marks her achievements as both medical physician and writer at a time when few African Americans were able to obtain higher education, let alone publish. Her book is one of the very first medical publications penned by an African American.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was a true trailblazer. Her accomplishments paved the way for women, both white and black, who by the late 1860s could attend several medical schools in the Northeast. She bettered the lives of United States' most disfranchised peoples as the nation's first black female doctor. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero and why we’re thrilled to close out 2017 with her story.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler changed the world… for the better. Her determination, dedication, confidence, and patience in the face of seriously unfavorable odds should be a model to us all. We are grateful to 12-year-old Karabelo from Washington, DC, for bringing this amazing hero to our attention. May Dr. Crumpler's example provide a beacon of hope for future generations.