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Crumpler, Rebecca Davis Leefree

(08 February 1831–09 March 1895)
  • Sarah K. A. Pfatteicher

Crumpler, Rebecca Davis Lee (08 February 1831–09 March 1895), physician, was born in Delaware, the daughter of Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber. Little is known of her early life, except that she was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who was often sought out by sick neighbors and whose kind attention to the sufferings of others had a great impact on her appreciative and impressionable niece. By 1852 Crumpler had moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts (near Cambridge), and for the proceeding eight years worked as a nurse for various doctors there. Her lack of formal training did not distinguish her from other nurses at the time, as the first U.S. school for nurses did not open until 1873. In 1860, bearing letters of recommendation from her physician-employers, Crumpler sought admittance to the M.D. program at New England Female Medical College (NEFMC). The first black medical school in the United States would not open until 1868, and in antebellum America medical school administrators routinely denied entrance to blacks, both male and female. Yet the trustees of New England Female Medical College admitted Crumpler to their four-year medical curriculum in 1860. The school had opened in 1848 under the name Boston Female Medical College, the first women’s medical college in the world.

In 1860 only about 300 of the 54,543 physicians in the United States were women with medical degrees. None were black women. American physicians were only gradually finding medical degrees necessary to their work; many still trained in apprenticeships, and most states had no licensing requirements. No records remain of Crumpler’s first three years at NEFMC, or of the struggles she may have endured to gain admittance or to remain enrolled. Her later writings give no indication that she was aware of her status as the first black woman M.D. in the United States; indeed, until the late twentieth century, scholars had assigned that distinction to Rebecca Cole, who received her degree from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1867, three years behind Crumpler. It seems likely that Crumpler attended medical school less to enable her to practice as a physician than to improve her nursing skills. She would later argue, for example, that “woman should study the mechanism of the human structure … before assuming the office of nurse” (Crumpler, p. 3).

On 24 February 1864 Crumpler and her two white classmates, Mary Lockwood Allen and Elizabeth Kimball, came before the four faculty members to undergo their final, oral examinations. Each candidate had had at least three years of preparatory coursework, written a thesis, and paid her graduation fees, all standard for the time. At the conclusion of the exam, the faculty voted to recommend Crumpler and her two classmates to the board of trustees, but they recorded some hesitation with regard to Lee’s recommendation. “Deficiencies” in Crumpler’s education and what the faculty regarded as her “slow progress” in medical school led the faculty to note that “some of us have hesitated very seriously in recommending her.” In spite of their reservations, the faculty deferred to “the wishes of the Trustees & the present state of public feeling,” suggesting that the faculty had felt pressured to pass Crumpler. The minutes of that meeting offer no further explanation. It is possible that the doctors for whom Crumpler had worked before entering medical school had put pressure on the faculty. Nevertheless, on the first of March the trustees conferred the “Doctress of Medicine” degree upon Crumpler. The trustees identified her as “Mrs. Rebecca Lee, negress,” suggesting Crumpler had been married while in school, though nothing more is known of her husband. According to NEFMC statistics, in this period only about 35 percent of all women who attended the college completed the degree program. With Crumpler’s graduation, the number of NEFMC graduates totaled forty-eight women. The college would close in 1873 without graduating another black woman. At around the time of her graduation she married Arthur Crumpler, but further details about him or their marriage are unknown except that Arthur outlived Rebecca.

Crumpler remained in Boston after graduation to practice and for a time sought additional training at an unspecified location in the “British Dominion.” She specialized in caring for women and children, particularly poor ones. At the end of the Civil War she moved to Richmond, Virginia, to do what she considered “real missionary work,” treating black patients through an arrangement with the Freedmen’s Bureau (Crumpler, p. 3). Many southern blacks, particularly former slaves, found themselves without medical care after leaving the plantation. The resulting need led Crumpler and other black physicians to offer such care; it also encouraged many more blacks to seek formal medical training. White missionary groups as well as black community groups were instrumental in founding, in the late nineteenth century, the first black medical schools in the United States. Yet despite the need for them, black practitioners were not usually welcome in the postwar south. There is some indication that Crumpler herself was not well received in Richmond. One source suggests that “men doctors snubbed her, druggists balked at filling her prescriptions, and some people wisecracked that the M.D. behind her name stood for nothing more than ‘Mule Driver’ ” (“Outstanding Women Doctors,” p. 68).

By 1869 Crumpler had returned to Boston, where she practiced with “renewed vigor,” perhaps because she felt more at home in the community where she had been trained. She lived, for a time at least, at 67 Joy Street on Beacon Hill, then a predominantly black neighborhood. By 1880 she and her husband had moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts, where the residents apparently were less in need of her services. She appears not to have been in active practice in 1883, the year she published A Book of Medical Discourses to advise women on medical care for themselves and their children. That she dedicated the volume to mothers and nurses seems a further indication that she viewed her medical training primarily as preparation for her nursing work. According to her death certificate, she died in Fairview, Massachusetts, still a resident of Hyde Park.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, American medical education began to open to many groups that previously had been excluded. David Peck, the first black man to receive a medical degree in the United States, did so in 1847; in 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to earn a medical degree, and in 1879 Mary E. P. Mahoney became the first black graduate of a U.S. nursing school. By 1920 there were sixty-five black women doctors in the United States. Each of these pioneers had to overcome serious obstacles, many of which continue to face women and minorities hoping to enter medicine. The lives of many of these trailblazers have been ably documented by historians. Although much of Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s life remains hidden, and in spite of her exclusion from most histories of American medicine, many have drawn inspiration from her achievements, as evidenced by the name of one of the first medical societies for black women: the Rebecca Lee Society. Additional research into her life would no doubt increase our understanding of the obstacles as well as the opportunities brought about by the spread of formal medical training in the United States.

Bibliography

Lee apparently left no personal papers. Records of her education at NEFMC are held at the Boston University Archives. A meager bit of information on Lee is available at the Archives and Special Collections on Women in Medicine at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and was gathered as part of the Black Women Physicians Project. Lee’s only known publication, and a source of much of the information on her life, is A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts (1883). Copies are held at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and at Countway Medical Library at Harvard University Medical School. Although little information is available on her life, Crumpler’s role as the first black woman M.D. in the United States has made her the subject of many entries in biographical dictionaries. Brief mention of her is made in “Outstanding Women Doctors,” Ebony, May 1964, pp. 68–76; W. Montague Cobb, “The Black in American Medicine,” Journal of the National Medical Association 73 supp. (Dec. 1981): 1208; and Frederick C. Waite, History of the New England Female Medical College, 1848–1874 (1950), pp. 56, 88, 122.