Wednesday, February 24, 2016

On Call—Rebecca Lee Crumpler First Black Woman MD

Dr. Rebcca Lee Crumpler.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s accomplishments were so remarkable that they hardly seem possible.  Yet she was nearly lost to history and another pioneer Black woman, Rebeca Cole was often credited with the honor of being America’s first female Black physician.  Her authorship of the first medical book by an African-American helped historians rediscover her remarkable story.  On February 24, 1864 she graduated with an M.D. from the New England Female Medical College.
She was born Rebecca Davis Lee on February 8, 1831 in Delaware to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis, free people of Color.  For unknown reasons she was raised mostly by an aunt in Philadelphia.  The aunt was a healer, herbal doctor, and midwife who cared for the long established Black community in that city.  Such informal practitioners blending folk medicine with what they learned of then contemporary medical knowledge were often the only source of care for many Blacks.
In the forward of her 1883 A Book of Medical Discourses she wrote, “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.”
At the age of about 20 in 1852 Lee moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts where she established herself as a nurse working under the direction of different doctors.  At the time there was no special education for nursing or even a system of apprenticeship.  Nursing was not considered a profession but as a menial domestic service to tend to the ill, injured, or infirm in their own homes.  
Lee must have been an exceptionally skilled nurse and likely showed the physicians under whom she worked a grasp of medicine that exceeded rudimentary care giving which was all that was expected of a nurse.  In fact in 1860 at least some of them were so impressed that “From these doctors I received letters commending me to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College.”   They also likely paid for at least part of her education.

New England Medical College in 1860.

The school had been founded in 1848 as the Boston Female Medical College by Dr. Samuel Gregory with the philanthropic assistance of Lemuel Shattuck and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Originally it had essentially been a school of midwifery but adopted a broader medical education and changed its name to the New England Female Medical College in the 1850’s.
Lee was the first Black student.  Little is known about her studies or the challenges she faced, but she graduated on time in 1864.  She was the only Black graduate up until the time the school merged with Boston University School of Medicine in 1873.
After graduation Lee set herself up in practice in Boston serving mostly Black women and children.  During this time she met the man who became her husband, Arthur Crumpler.  She also sought, unsuccessfully, more advanced training somewhere in the “British Dominion” by which she likely meant Canada.
When the Civil War ended the now Rebeca Crumpler saw an opportunity for service in the South.  In 1865 she moved to Richmond, Virginia, “a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children. During my stay there 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.”
She worked for the Freedman’s Bureau.  She found the work satisfying but encountered intense racism at every turn.  “Men doctors snubbed her, druggist balked at filling her prescriptions, and some people wisecracked that the M.D. behind her name stood for nothing more than ‘Mule Driver’” according to one biographical sketch of her career.
67 Joy Street in Boston where Dr. Crumpler established her practice as it looks today.
After her post war service in Richmond she returned to Boston with her husband and established her practice out of their home at 67 Joy Street on a side of Beacon Hill that had become a Black community.  Her practice among women and children was busy, but not always remunerative.  She often provided care for the poor without pay.  She was admired for her work in the community and got grudging respect from white doctors.

Around 1880 she gave up her practice and moved with her husband to Hyde Park, Massachusetts.  Although he established a practice there, for some reason she did not.  Instead she turned to reviewing the notes on her cases which became the basis for her two-volume Book of Medical Discourses which was published by Cushman, Keating & Company as a reference for women on how to provide medical care for themselves and their children.  It is considered the first medical book authored by a Black person in the U.S.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler died on March 9, 1894 at age 64.  She was survived by her husband.  The couple had no children.
Crumpler was rediscovered by Black History scholars in the 21st Century including leading  Henry Louis Gates who wrote about her in African American Lives.  You can see her Joy Street home and office on the Boston Women’s History Trail.