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Rebecca Lee Crumpler: About

Rebecca Lee Crumpler: First Black Women to earn a Medical Degree in the U.S. 1864


Who was Rebecca Lee Crumpler?

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. A true pioneer, she battled deep-seated prejudice against women and African Americans in medicine. After earning her degree in Boston, she spent time in Richmond, Virginia after the Civil War, caring for formerly enslaved people. In 1883, Dr. Crumpler published her Book of Medical Discourses. It chronicles her experiences as a doctor and provides guidance on maternal and child health.  

Born Rebecca Davis in Delaware in 1831, Crumpler was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania who often helped care for sick neighbors. Those early experiences made her want to work to “relieve the suffering of others.” In the early 1850s she moved to Massachusetts and became a nurse. Crumpler earned a place at the New England Female Medical College (NEFMC) in 1860. The school was the first in the country to train women M.D.s. At the time, many men argued that women were too delicate or not intelligent enough to be doctors. Most medical schools barred Black students regardless of gender. The NEFMC initially trained women to work only as midwives. This focus reflected its founder Samuel Gregory’s belief that it was improper for male doctors to assist with childbirth. But by the time Crumpler attended, the curriculum had expanded to encompass a more complete medical education.  

Dr. Crumpler graduated from New England Female Medical College in 1864, becoming the first female African American doctor. Her official degree was “Doctress of Medicine.” She began practicing in Boston, but at the end of the Civil War found herself drawn to Richmond, Virginia as a “proper field for real missionary work.” She collaborated with the Freedmen’s Bureau and other charity and missionary groups to care for freed African Americans. Many of her patients were very poor people who would otherwise have had no access to medical care.  Continue reading from NPS

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