Profile: Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

 

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Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman doctor in the United States.  She completed medical school at the New England Female Medical College and received her M.D. in 1864.

Crumpler graduated medical college at a time when very few African Americans were allowed to attend medical college or publish books. Crumpler first practiced medicine, primarily for poor women and children, in Boston. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, believing treating women and children there was an ideal way to perform missionary work. Crumpler worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves. She was subject to “intense racism” and sexism while practicing medicine.

She later moved back to Boston to continue to treat women and children. In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses. Dedicated to nurses and mothers, it focused on maternal and pediatric medical care and was one of the first publications written by an African American about medicine. Crumpler was in fact the only female physician author in the 19th century. A pre-health club named The Rebecca Lee Pre-Health Society at Syracuse University and the Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African-American women, were named after her. Her Joy Street house is a stop on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

n 1831, Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis in Christiana, Delaware to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis. She was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who cared for infirm neighbors. Her aunt acted as the doctor in her community and had a huge influence on her.  She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1852.

By 1852, 21-year-old Davis was living in Charlestown, Massachusetts where she worked as a nurse for eight years.  She enrolled in the New England Female Medical College in 1860.  Her acceptance at the college was highly unusual as most medical schools at that time it did not admit African Americans and there were no black female doctors among the 54,000 physicians in the U.S.  At that time only 300 white women were doctors.  Despite its reluctance, the institution admitted Davis.  She won a tuition award from the Wade Scholarship Fund created by the Ohio abolitionist Benjamin Wade and graduated on March 1, 1864, four years after her admission to the institution.

While living in Charleston, Rebecca Davis married Wyatt Lee, a Virginia native and former slave.  Lee died of tuberculosis on April 18, 1863.  Two years later, on May 24, 1865, she married Arthur Crumpler in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.  Crumpler, a former slave who served in the Union Army eventually worked at the West Newton English and Classical School.  The couple had one child, a daughter,Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler, born in 1870.

Dr. Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston and specialized in the care of women, children, and the poor.  She moved to Richmond, Virginia in 1865 to minister to freedpeople through the Freedmen’s Bureau.  Crumpler returned to Boston in 1869 where she practiced from her home on Beacon Hill and dispensed nutritional advice to poor women and children.  In 1883 she published a medical guide book, Book of Medical Discourses, which primarily gave advice for women in the health care of their families.

Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler died on March 9, 1895 in the Hyde Park section of Boston and was buried in nearby Fairview Cemetery.  She was 64 at the time of her death.  In 1989 she was honored for her groundbreaking achievements when Saundra Maass-Robinson, M.D. and Patricia Whitley, M.D. founded the Rebecca Lee Society, an organization which supports and promotes black women physicians.

A Book of Medical Discourses

In 1883, Crumpler published A Book of Medical Discourses from the notes she kept over the course of her medical career. Dedicated to nurses and mothers,  it focused on the medical care of women and children. Though her primary focus was on the health of women and children, which seemed to be influenced by homeopathy, Crumpler recommended courses of treatment without stating that the treatment was homeopathic. She did not mention that medicine could be harmful, but stated the conventional amount of standard medicine usage.  Her medical book is divided into two sections: in the first part she focuses on preventing and mitigating intestinal problems that can occur around the teething period until the child is about five years of age;  the second part mainly focuses on womanhood and “distressing complaints” from youth to mature women. Although the book was focussed on medical advice, Crumpler also ties in autobiographical details that contain political, social, and moral commentary.  Crumpler describes the progression of experiences that led her to study and practice medicine in her book:

It may be well to state here that, having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others. Later in life I devoted my time, when best I could, to nursing as a business, serving under different doctors for a period of eight years; most of the time at my adopted home in Charlestown, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. From these doctors I received letters commending me to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College, whence, four years afterward, I received the degree of Doctress of Medicine.

At the time, writings and books by African-American authors had prefaces and introductions written in the style of white male writings to give them authentication. Crumpler was able to introduce her own text, and was also able to justify her work based on her own authority.

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