As she traveled to Pennsylvania to begin a new life living with her aunt, a young Rebecca Lee couldn’t have known she was also on a journey to change the lives of tens of thousands of women and children—and to make medical history. But by 1885, fifty years later, she had become the nation’s first Black woman to earn a medical degree, championed the cause of medical training for nurses, and published a book on preventive health care. She had also spent years in Virginia after the Civil War, treating thousands of newly emancipated Black women and children living without health services—and asserting that their poor health was not the result of unhealthy behavior and choices, but rather poverty and systemic disadvantage. “The most fatal threat to freed people’s health,” she wrote, “was the lack of shelter, clothing, and nutrition.”
As we celebrate Black History Month, we honor the achievements and impact of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, America’s first Black female medical doctor.
It all started when she arrived as a child in Pennsylvania. Black families in her new community, as in many communities, had little access to formal medical services and often relied on the knowledge of experienced neighbors—people like her aunt. Her aunt’s “usefulness with the sick was continually sought,” she recalled. “I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others.
When she was old enough, she moved to Massachusetts where she worked as a nurse (a profession that did not require a degree at the time). She clearly impressed the doctors with whom she worked, and several wrote recommendations to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College on her behalf. She enrolled in 1860, and four years later—in spite of skepticism by some faculty—she earned her “Doctress of Medicine” degree.
There were around 55,000 medical doctors in the United States at the time. More than 99 percent were White men. Around 270 were White women. Less than 200 were Black men. And exactly one was a Black woman: Rebecca Lee Crumpler.
She continued to treat poor women and children in Boston, and then traveled to Canada to learn about that country’s approach. After the end of the Civil War, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, to undertake what she called the “real missionary work”– providing medical care for formerly enslaved people. By the time she returned to Massachusetts, she had become even more committed to community and family medicine. Following in the footsteps of her aunt, she practiced in the streets of the neighborhood, and began, as she says, “receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration.”
Then, to combat misperceptions and lack of knowledge in women’s and pediatric health, Crumpler in 1883 published the two-volume set, Book of Medical Discourses. In it, she encourages breastfeeding and calls out the risk to babies when their mothers serve as wet nurses for other women’s children (which many Black women were forced to do during and after slavery). She writes extensively about cholera infantum, the “summer diarrhea” that endangered so many infants at the time. She explains pneumonia, tonsilitis, general anatomy, and more—all framed for mothers and nurses.
Most of all, she persistently asserts that many ailments, especially in children, are preventable. People, she writes, “speak of consumption, cholera infantum, and diphtheria, etc., as if sent by God to destroy our infants. They seem to forget that there is a cause for every ailment, and it may be in their power to remove it.”
So while she is perhaps best known for her barrier-breaking medical degree, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler herself might prefer to be remembered for her work advancing maternal and child health, especially among the poor. “There is no doubt that thousands of little ones annually die at our very doors, from diseases which could have been prevented, or cut short by timely aid,” she writes.
“There are duties involving upon each and all, rich or poor, from which none can expect to be excused till the last known part has been performed.”
MORE: Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, National Institutes of Health National Library of Medicine
NOTE: Amid the growing number of conversations about structural racism, many organizations in recent years have reassessed their language style guides’ treatment of racial identity, and many—including the Alliance—now capitalize all racial group identifiers, including Black and White. In our equity conversations, we try to listen first to people actually impacted by racial injustice and, in this case, followed the lead of the National Association of Black Journalists. The Center for the Study of Social Policy also makes a compelling case for this approach to capitalization as an equity strategy.