DLH is celebrating Black History Month by honoring the legacy of African-American leaders in public health, government, and information technology. Click here to view more entries in our series.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman to earn an M.D. and was the author of one of the first medical publications by a black woman. Although much of her story is lost to history, the narrative of her life that she tells in ‘Book of Medical Discourses’ has secured her rightfully earned place in the annals of U.S. medical history.
Born in Delaware in 1831, Crumpler was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania. This aunt often helped to care for sick neighbors, and these experiences inspired Rebecca to seek out a job in nursing. Crumpler excelled in her eight years as a nurse, impressing many of the doctors she worked with. Some of these doctors urged her to apply to medical school, writing letters of recommendation in her support.
Crumpler was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860. She graduated four years later, becoming the first black woman in the United States to earn an M.D. and the only African American woman to graduate from New England Female Medical College, which closed several years later. At the time she graduated, only 300 of the over 50,000 physicians in the United States were women, and none were African American.
Dr. Crumpler began practicing medicine in Boston, treating mostly women and children. Following the Civil War, she moved South, collaborating with the Freedmen’s Bureau and other groups to provide medical care to newly freed African Americans.
In 1883, Dr. Crumpler published a book entitled, “Book of Medical Discourses.” In addition to providing guidance on maternal and child health, the introduction to this book provides the basis for most of our current knowledge of Dr. Crumpler’s life and career. It is one of the very first medical publications by an African American.
Learn more about the life and legacy of Rebecca Lee Crumpler from PBS.
‘Rebecca Lee Crumpler,’ U.S. National Library of Medicine
‘Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler,’ National Parks Service
‘Rebecca Lee Crumpler: Physician, Author, Pioneer,’ by Jaclyn Long, Harvard University, The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences