According to several sources, on February 24, 1864, Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman medical doctor in the United States. (Other sources list the date as March 11). Whatever the exact date, it is a fact that in 1864 Dr. Crumpler was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. A nurse by training, she was 33 years old when she received her Medical Degree from the New England Female Medical College, which merged with Boston University in 1873. Crumpler was born in Delaware on February 8, 1831 and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1852, she moved to Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse for eight years. Crumpler entered medical school in 1860. At the time only 300 of the 54,000 doctors in the United States were women, and they were all White women.
Around the time of her graduation, Crumpler married former slave Arthur Crumpler. Her first husband, Wyatt Lee, passed away after they had been married for eleven years.
After the Civil War Dr. Crumpler moved to Richmond to provide medical care to newly freed Blacks, who were often refused treatment by White physicians. She returned to Boston in 1869 and opened a medical practice in her home in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
In 1883, Dr. Crumpler wrote and published the Book of Medical Discourses, making her the first Black physician to public a medical treatise. In it she described her career trajectory. “It may be well to state here that, 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. Later in life I devoted my time, when best I could, to nursing as a business, serving under different doctors for a period of eight years (from 1852 to 1860); most of the time at my adopted home in Charlestown, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. From these doctors I received letters commending me to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College, whence, four years afterward, I received the degree of doctress of medicine.”
Dr. Crumpler died in relative obscurity on March 9, 1895. She had been buried in an unmarked grave for 125 years when funds were raised in 2020 to provide a proper and appropriate granite headstone for Crumpler and her husband.
Joan Potter, African American First: Famous, Little-Known, and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks in America, Fourth Edition (2014)
Jessie Carney Smith, The Handy African American History Answer Book (2014)
“Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler: Boston African-American National Historic Site,” National Park Services
“Trailblazing Boston University Alum Gets Gravestone 125 Years after Her Death,” Boston University publication (August 7, 2020)
“Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, first African-American woman physician,” PBS Publication (March 9, 2016)