Black History Month: Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD

This month we’re highlighting prominent Black figures in the medical field and next up is Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

Born in 1831, Rebecca Lee Crumpler grew up in Pennsylvania and was raised by her aunt. Although her aunt didn’t have formal medical training, she was the de facto doctor in her community and people came to her for care when they were sick.

Inspired by her aunt, Crumpler moved to Massachusetts where she worked as a nurse. After five years of working as a nurse, she was recommended and accepted to attend the New England Female Medical College in 1860. Her tuition was paid for by a scholarship. When she graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864, she became the only female Black formally–trained physician in the entire country. While she was in medical school, her husband Wyatt Lee died of tuberculosis. Two years later, she married Arthur Crumpler. The couple had one daughter, but she’s thought to not have survived infancy.

She cared for mostly poor Black women and children. After the Civil War ended, she began caring for former enslaved people because white doctors refused to care for them. Most of her patients could not pay for her services, yet she treated them anyway. Even though she was a medical doctor, many pharmacies refused to fill her prescriptions.

In 1883, she published a book titled A Book of Medical Discourses from all the notes she kept over the years. It focused heavily on the care of women and children and it highlighted the importance of preventive care. She recommended that nurses study human structure and that this would help them throughout their practice. She was heavy influenced by homeopathy and often recommended treatments that would be considered homeopathic. She also gave non-medical advice in the book, sharing her thoughts on how to have a happy marriage.

Dr. Crumpler died at 64, in 1895. Her husband died in 1910 and they were both buried in unmarked graves until 2020, when raised donations purchased a granite headstone for the two of them. Her former home in Boston is on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.