Rebecca Lee Crumpler, an American nurse and physician, was born in 1831 and graduated from the New England College of Medicine. She was the first African-American doctor in the history of the United States of America. She died in 1895.
Her place in the historical record was secured by her reference book, The Book of Medical Discourses, published in 1883, in which she gave a brief summary of her career.
She was one of the first women to combine private practice with community services, and in her work she cared for African Americans in the south of the United States of America after the Civil War, and she won the respect of many in the medical profession, despite the racism and racial discrimination she was subjected to.
She overcame the harshest societal constraints by choosing a profession that was then unattainable for "blacks" and devoting her life to the study and treatment of diseases of women and children. Her early successes led to the creation of a foundation in her name to promote the access of African-American women to the medical profession, an honor that has long forgotten her name.
Birth and upbringing
Rebecca Davis Lee Crompler was born on February 8, 1831, in Christiana, Delaware, USA, to parents of African descent, Matilda Weber and Absolom Davis.
She grew up in Pennsylvania, and was raised by her aunt who regularly cared for her sick neighbors. This early experience inspired her to study medicine and look for any opportunity to work to alleviate the suffering of others.
In 1852 she added her husband's last name (White Lee) to her own, and the tragedy of the death of her son Albert at the age of 7 was the impetus to study nursing.
Her second husband, Arthur, described her as a kind and intelligent woman, a tireless worker, who loved sports and played them at home.
There are no known photographs of Rebecca, and the photograph accompanying the writings about her is believed to be that of Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African-American nurse in the United States. What is known about her life came only from the introduction to her book, in which she provided a summary of her professional path.
Scientific study and training
In 1852, in her spare time, Rebecca studied English and classics at West Newton School in Massachusetts, excelling in mathematics.
Then she devoted her time to nursing training under the supervision of different doctors over a period of 8 years, and she was able to perform this work without any formal education, as there was no school in this field at the time.
Because of the unique talent she displayed during her training, her supervising physician recommended admission to the New England Female Medical College.
The faculty registered its admission to the college with reluctance, citing that it might show "slow progress in learning." But despite its reservations, the faculty deferred to the committee of trustees, the persuasion of the doctors with whom Rebecca worked, and also the need for medical care for veterans during the American Civil War.
In 1860 Rebecca became the first and only woman of African descent to study medicine, at a time when most medical schools barred African Americans from attending.
She had to stop her studies to take care of her sick husband, and after his death, she asked to resume her studies. Although professors resented her return, she was greatly supported and won a scholarship from the Wade Scholarship Fund set up by Benjamin Wade, an Ohio abolitionist.
Despite the difficulty of the curriculum, and the loneliness she felt as the only African student, she worked hard during the 3 years, attending preparatory classes that lasted 17 weeks, with training supervised by a doctor for her last two years.
The study required 30 hours per week, a good education in the English language, and the preparation of a thesis on some medical subjects, with the payment of graduation fees.
On February 24, 1864, she successfully sat her final exams, and on March 1, a committee of trustees awarded her the degree of Doctor of Medicine, identifying her as "Mrs. Rebecca Lee, Negro," according to minutes of the meeting kept in the archives of Boston University.
When she was 33, she was the first African American to obtain this degree, and the only one to graduate from the New England Female Medical College, which closed in 1873 and merged with Boston College of Medicine.
After graduation, she trained for a short period in the British Dominican Republic, specializing in gynecology and pediatrics.
In her twenties, Rebecca began her career as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts, near Cambridge in 1852.
And she began practicing medicine for the first time in Boston in 1864, to be a doctor among 54,543 doctors in the country, 270 of whom are women and 180 are African American men, according to historian Vanessa Northington Gamble.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, Rebecca moved to suburban Richmond, Virginia, to do what she considered "a real missionary work." She joined Friedman's Bureau, established by Congress in 1865 to provide food, shelter, and medical care to 4 million freed slaves.
She was not welcomed at first, she was subjected to racial discrimination, male doctors treated her with disdain, pharmacists refused to fill her prescriptions, she was ridiculed, and the doctor supervising her was said to be nothing more than a "mule driver".
Despite this, she asserted that this work had opened many opportunities for her to become acquainted with diseases that afflict women and children. In the last quarter of 1866, she had provided medical care to about 30,000 “black” people who had been refused treatment by “white” doctors, and she said about the experience later. "Every hour that I spent there made me better at work."
By 1869 Rebecca had returned to the (predominantly black) Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, established her own practice, and continued to treat ailments in poor women and children. In 1880 she moved to Hyde Park in the south part of Boston, and it is said that she did not practice medicine in the last years of her life.
First medical publication
In 1883 Rebecca Crompler published a reference book, A Book of Medical Discourses, in two parts from clinical observations gained during her medical career.
Historians believe it is the first medical publication written by an African-American author, and copies are preserved at the National Library of Medicine in Washington and at the Contway Medical Library at Harvard Medical School.
It covers topics that were not researched in depth at that time, as the first section focused on methods of treatment, prevention and recovery from intestinal problems in children, which can occur from the period of teeth appearing until the age of five. The second section focused on the health effects of early marriage, and how to maintain women's health before, during and after childbirth.
In her book, Rebecca did not endorse homeopathy (the etiological principle), but she preferred to use a moderate amount of the usual medicine, and she recommends several of them in her articles.
The book is generally devoted to her professional experience, including some personal details about her life, and describing the experiences that led her to study and practice medicine.
The role of Rebecca the doctor did not receive much attention, and she was excluded from most of the history of American medicine, and there is little information available in the official records available about her, and about 25 years after her death, there were 65 "black" female doctors in the United States in 1920.
Monuments and honors
- The City of Boston celebrated Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumbler Day, on the 190th anniversary of her birth in 2021, for her pioneering achievements in medicine.
- Rebecca's gravestone has been erected to honor her legacy, 125 years after her death in 2020, thanks to the Friends of the Hyde Park Branch Library.
- In 2019 Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared March 30 as Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day (also National Doctors Day).
- In 1989, doctors founded the Rebecca Lee Foundation to promote access for African American women to the medical profession.
- A memorial plaque was erected at her station home on Boston Women's Heritage Trail.
Rebecca died of fibroids on March 9, 1895, at the age of 64, and was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park without a headstone.