A pioneering woman of many firsts

Published 1:40 pm Friday, February 19, 2021

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During the 19th century it was a rarity for African Americans to obtain a college education or publish books. Yet, as with Patricia Bath and Kamala Harris, Rebecca Lee Crumpler was a woman of many firsts. 

This dynamic woman was born Rebecca Davis on February 8, 1831, in Christiana, Delaware to Matilda and Absalum Davis. Rebecca was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania who cared for her neighbors as a doctor in her community. 

Watching her aunt in action sparked a desire in Davis to enter the medical field. In 1852 she moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts. Subsequently, Davis worked as a nurse from 1855 to 1864. On April 19, 1852, while living in Charlestown, Rebecca married Wyatt Lee, a Virginia native and former slave. In addition, she became stepmother to his son Albert who died a year later at age 7. Moreover, this tragedy may have motivated her study of nursing for eight years.

In 1860 Rebecca was accepted into the New England Female Medical College winning a scholarship from the Wade Scholarship Fund, which was established by Ohio abolitionist Benjamin Wade. During this time due to heavy demand for medical care for Civil War veterans, there were more opportunities for women doctors. While working as a medical apprentice, Rebecca’s talent certified a recommendation by her supervising physician to attend medical school. Of the 54,593 physicians in the United States at the time 300 were women and none were African American. Sadly, her husband Wyatt died of tuberculosis on April 18, 1863. Consequently, on March 1, 1864, Davis graduated from New England Female Medical College where she was the only African American graduate and the first African American female doctor in the United States.

On May 24, 1865, Dr. Rebecca Lee married Arthur Crumpler in Saint John, New Brunswick. Arthur was a former slave from Southampton County. They made a home at 20 Garden Street in Boston and welcomed a daughter, Lizzie Sinclair, in December of 1870.  In addition, the couple were active members of the Twelfth Baptist Church in the city where Arthur served as a trustee. Dr. Rebecca Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston and cared primarily for poor African American women and children. 

After the Civil War she moved to Richmond because she felt she could gain more experience learning about diseases that affected women and children. Crumpler worked as a doctor for the Freedmen’s Bureau providing medical care to freed blacks who were denied care by white doctors. While there she suffered intense racism and sexism from the organization’s administration and physicians having difficulty getting prescriptions filled for her patients and being ignored by colleagues.

Crumpler moved back to Boston on 67 Joy Street in a predominantly African American community in Beacon Hill and practiced medicine treating children not concerning herself about the parents ability to pay. In the early 1870s Rebecca attended the elite West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts and taught in Wilmington, Delaware in 1874 and in New Castle, Delaware in 1876. Furthermore, Dr. Crumpler, in 1883, was the only  female physician who was a published author publishing “A Book of Medical Discourses”  which was dedicated to nurses and mothers focusing on the medical care of women and children. The book focused on disease prevention such as intestinal problems. Moreover, in the writing she recommended that women study the mechanisms of the human body before becoming a nurse in order to be effective in protecting life.  

 For many years Crumpler lived in Hyde Park in Boston but died March 9, 1895, at age 64 in Fairview, Massachusetts. Arthur died in May 1910. The Crumplers are both buried at the Fairview Cemetery. 

On July 16, 2020, after a fundraising effort spearheaded by Vicky Gall, a history buff and president of the Friends of Hyde Park Library, a ceremony was held at Fairview Cemetery with a gravestone installed commemorating their lives. 

Among her lasting legacy and honors are the Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African American women was named in her honor. Her home on Joy Street is on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail. At Syracuse University there is the Rebecca Lee Pre-Health Society which encourages people of diverse backgrounds to pursue health professions offering workshops, mentors and resources to help members succeed.

So you see, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler with dedication and perseverance along with encouragement from family pursued her dream of being a doctor believing in a sense of community. Providing adequate and equal medical care to women and children, she believed benefitted the well-being of families.

Judy Moore, a tour guide at The Central High Museum can be reached at caesar502021@outlook.com. She lives in Wylliesburg.