Monday, March 12, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Rebecca Lee Crumpler

An early manuscript of Dr. Rebecca Crumpler's
book. No pictures of the doctor remain.
In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first female African American doctor. Born Rebecca Davis in 1831, she was raised by an aunt who cared for the sick. Rebecca was a bright student and was granted the status of "special student" and admitted to an elite private school. By 1852, Rebecca married Wyatt Lee and moved to Massachusetts. There she worked as a nurse, a position she had apprenticed into because no nursing school existed for a young African American woman to attend. Several sources report that around this time, Rebecca began to apply to medical school but it took eight years for her to find a place that would accept her.

While Rebecca was hunting for a place to go to school, a new school called The New England Female Medical College was starting up in Boston. The founders, Drs. Israel Tisdale Talbot and Samuel Gregory, faced a lot of skepticism from the medical community when the school finally accepted it's first class in 1850. Male doctors believed women were too physically weak and mentally sensitive to be doctors. Thankfully, the school founders proceeded. Rebecca was accepted in 1860 and graduated four years later.

At the time of her graduation, only 300 of the 54,543 physicians in the United States were women. Until Rebecca finished school, none of those women were African Americans. However, Rebecca isn't extraordinary simply for being the first (a title she might not have even known she held. For years a Dr. Rebecca Cole was thought to be first, but she graduated from medical school in 1867.) Rebecca used her degree with compassion.

Sometime after graduating from medical school, Rebecca remarried. Her first husband had passed away in 1863. While dates differ regarding when the nuptials took place, Rebecca married former fugitive slave and Union soldier, Arthur Crumpler. After the civil war, the couple moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Rebecca established a medical practice working primarily with poor women and children and freed slaves.

In 1880, Rebecca and her husband returned to Boston where she continued to practice medicine, though possibly not as frequently as before. She used her time to write a medical guidebook called, A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts, which was published by Cashman, Keating and Co., of Boston, in 1883. The text is dedicated “to mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” It focused on the medical needs of women and children, a concept way ahead of its time. The book is also possibly the first medical publication written by an African American author.

Rebecca didn't lead a movement, but she quietly persisted in her chosen field. She broke barriers. She cared for those who needed it most. She documented her achievements to further the medical treatment of women and children. Despite her important contributions, no photographs of Rebecca remain. Pictured here is a manuscript of her book. Rebecca has not been widely remembered by history, but her persistence in breaking down barriers allowed her to serve her community and opened up the medical profession to a whole new demographic.

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