Born Rebecca Davis Lee in Delaware, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s birth year has been widely reported as 1831, although some publications have tentatively noted 1833 as well.
The discrepancy may have been attributed to historically mismanaged – and even non-existent – records of African Americans who descended from slaves during that time period in American history.
By that same vein, it is therefore not surprising that little is known of Crumpler’s family or childhood. Crumpler surmised, however, that she was born a free woman in her book, The Book of Medical Discourses, where she also addressed being raised in Pennsylvania by a caring,
empathetic aunt, who served as a role model and key influence in Crumpler’s decision to pursue medicine as a career.
From 1852 to 1860, Crumpler followed her aunt’s footsteps, relieving others of their illnesses and sufferings as a nurse, especially tending to poor African Americans in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Since there were no formal nursing schools at the time for women – much less minority, African American women – Crumpler trained diligently under
various doctors during those eight years.
Recognizing her dedication and capability for the medical profession, many of Crumpler’s supervisors ultimately recommended her to the New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusets (known today as Boston University’s medical school). Her admittance to the college was a phenomenal feat, as most universities and colleges at the time did not accept African Americans, although demand for women physicians increased significantly across the country to care for wounded soldiers and veterans during the Civil War.
In 1864, Crumpler received her Doctorate of Medicine, becoming the first African American doctor in history. The same year, she married fellow doctor, Arthur Crumpler, before moving to Richmond, Virginia, the following year to administer much-needed medical care to newly freed slaves after the Civil War, as recorded by the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Dr. Crumpler later returned to Boston in 1869 to establish a home-based medical practice in Beacon Hill, primarily focusing on serving poor women and children. It is believed that she began working on her medical research and writings at this time.
The Book of Medical Discourses, a two-volume work, was published in 1883, and was based on Crumpler’s old notes and journals recording her experiences as a nurse and doctor. Her guide is regarded as one of the earliest works on public health, and the first known scientific and medical publication by an African American.
Dr. Lee Crumpler passed in 1895. Almost a century later, in 1989, the Rebecca Lee Society was founded to honor her achievements, and to support and promote African American women physicians across the nation. No known photos survive of her.
By Kim Tran