Rebecca Lee Crumpler — Physician
Challenged the prevailing attitudes of her day when in 1864 she became the first African American woman to earn a medical degree.
Even at an early age, Rebecca Lee Crumpler displayed a penchant and sensitivity toward caring for the poor and ill. Born in Delaware in 1831, she was raised by an aunt who was dedicated to looking after sick neighbors and friends. At the age of 21, young Rebecca moved to Charleston, Mass., to work as a nurse for the next eight years. Since the first formal nursing school wouldn’t open for another 20 years, Rebecca was able to practice nursing without any sort of degree. In 1860, at age 29, she entered the New England Female Medical College, challenging prevailing racial prejudices of the day that often prevented blacks from pursuing a medical career. All through her enrollment at the college, Rebecca remained diligent and persistent toward her goal.
Why She’s Important: Upon graduating from New England Female Medical College, she became the first black female doctor in the United States, and in the process became a key role model for future minority female physicians entering the field. In addition, her book, Medical Discourses published in 1883 which detailed her medical advice and experiences treating disease, was one of the first medical publications by an African American.
Other Achievements: She practiced in Boston until the end of the Civil War. Then, in 1866, she moved to Richmond, Va., to help those affected by the devastation of the war. It was in Richmond, among a black population of 30,000, that she joined other black physicians to care for freed slaves who otherwise would have received no medical care. She later returned to Boston where she specialized in the treatment of women and children. She died in 1895 at age 65.
In Her Own Words: Commenting in her book, Medical Discourses, on her experiences treating a range of medical cases in Richmond, VA after the Civil War, she wrote: “During my stay there [in Richmond], 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.”
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