Over 150 years ago, a young woman took a few calming breaths and walked across the stage to accept her diploma from the New England Female Medical College. The only Black face in a sea of white, this woman shook hands with her supervising physician, clutched the precious piece of parchment, and thus began a historic career as a medical doctor – the first Black woman medical doctor in United States history.
That woman was Rebecca Lee Crumpler. Living from 1830 – 1895, Rebecca was a nurse, physician and lauded medical author. She spent most of her career in Boston and Virginia caring for Black mothers and children who were poor and/or had been denied medical care by white doctors. Read on for four facts about this extraordinary woman:
1. Rebecca’s undeniable talent and the need created by the Civil War earned her a place in medical school.
Due to institutionalized racism and sexism, it was extremely rare for women and especially Black women to be admitted to schools of medicine in the late 19th century. Crumpler was able to start at the New England Female Medical College for two reasons. First, she’d worked for five years as a nurse, and had developed such a strong reputation that she won a competitive scholarship as well as the personal recommendation of all the doctors who she worked with. Second, the Civil War had stretched the medical system to its limit, and in 1860, countless veterans needed extreme medical care, creating more opportunities for non-traditional medical students.
2. After graduating, Crumpler worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide medical care to formerly enslaved Black people.
After the North won the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1865 to assist with the reconstruction of the South by providing services and aid to Black people who had recently been enslaved. Many of these wrongfully enslaved people had never seen a doctor, having been denied medical care by their former enslavers, or had had harrowing experiences with a medical system that despised them as subhuman. Crumpler dove passionately into her work with the Freedmen’s Bureau in West Virginia, and said of the experience:
“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…"
3. Many of Crumpler’s colleagues thought her brain was (literally) smaller than theirs.
In the 19th century, the now defunct science of phrenology, or the detailed study of skull size to predict intelligence and other mental faculties, was still widely regarded as credible. Many men at the time, including doctors, believed that a woman’s skull (and therefore brain) was 10% percent smaller than a man’s on average, and believed as such that a woman – especially a Black woman - could never compete with a man intellectually. Crumpler was subjected to intense sexism as well as racism throughout her personal and professional life. Basic day-to-day job tasks that were easy for white male doctors, like getting prescriptions filled or getting traction for her medical opinions and publications, were much harder for her. Some even joked cruelly that the MD after her name stood not for medical doctor, but for “Mule Driver.” But Rebecca was determined, resilient, and persevered despite these circumstances.
4. Crumpler wrote one of the first books addressing Black maternal health.
In 1883, after over 20 years of practicing medicine amongst poor Black people, Crumpler drew on her own clinical notes and the latest science to publish “A Book of Medical Discourses.” The ground-breaking book covers topics not often examined in depth at that time, such as the gastro-intestinal complaints of young infants and remedies, the health implications of early marriage, and how to keep women well before, during, and after childbirth.
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