Last year, on a cold February morning, I sat in my kitchen reading a troubling story. One of my professional heroes, the first Black female physician in the United States, a woman who overcame remarkable odds in a field dominated by men during the 19th Century, laid in an unmarked grave. Her fight against sexism, racism, and intolerance over a century ago paved the way for the women physicians of today to follow in her footsteps. Astonishingly, Dr. Rebecca Crumpler’s final resting place did not reflect the fact she changed the course of history.
Dr. Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis in Delaware on February 8, 1831. She was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who provided care to the ill. A bright child, Crumpler was sent to a private school in Massachusetts, the West Newton English and Classical School. In 1852, she began an 8-year nursing apprenticeship working for different doctors in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Many physicians she worked with were so impressed by her abilities, they encouraged her to apply to medical school and wrote letters in support of her admission.
In 1860, she was accepted to the New England Female Medical College, now Boston University School of Medicine. At that time, only 300 of the 54,543 physicians in the United States with a medical degree were women. And all of them were white. Not much has changed since then. Just 2% of U.S. physicians today are Black women. Even when I applied to medical school more than 125 years after Dr. Crumpler, the admissions interviewers asked whether it was unusual for an Arabic woman to become a physician, implying I might not be suited to the medical profession.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Rebecca was forced to move to Richmond, Virginia. By the time she returned to school, in 1863, her scholarship—established by the abolitionist Benjamin Wade—had been rescinded. Refusing to give up, she won the Wade scholarship for a second time and completed her studies, becoming the first and only African-American graduate of the New England Female Medical College in 1864. Around that time, she married Arthur Crumpler—an escaped slave who worked as a blacksmith for the Union Army. The couple settled in Boston where Dr. Crumpler ran a medical practice serving women and children regardless of their ability to pay for medical care.
Toward the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Crumplers relocated to Richmond, Virginia where Dr. Crumpler worked for the Freedman’s Bureau, the federal agency tasked with helping 4 million slaves make the striking transition from bondage to freedom. While Dr. Crumpler was beloved by patients, she was shunned by the medical community around her. According to the book Outstanding Women Doctors, “Men doctors snubbed her, druggists balked at filling her prescriptions, and some wisecracked that the MD behind her name stood for…. ‘Mule Driver.”
Dr. Crumpler ignored daily incidents of blatant racism and sexism and “sought every opportunity to be in a position to relieve the sufferings of others.” While most female physicians, including myself, have experience with shunning, snubbing and balking from mainstream medicine, it is hard to imagine the overwhelming obstacles Dr. Crumpler endured to serve her patients.
In 1869, the Crumplers returned to Boston, settling in Beacon Hill, where she continued to practice medicine, focusing mostly on the care of women and children. In 1880, the couple moved to Hyde Park, New York, where she wrote “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.” Likely the first medical text published by an African-American author, it is dedicated, “to mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” Rebecca Lee Crumpler died in 1895 and was buried at the Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park.
As I sat in my kitchen, digesting both my breakfast and the startling revelation that 125 years after her death, Dr. Crumpler still had no proper headstone, I read that the Friends of Hyde Park Library and Hyde Park Historical Society organized a fundraiser to purchase one for her and her husband. Dr. Crumpler’s fight for legitimacy more than a century ago helped make my professional life possible, so the notion that I could, in some small way, give back to her, made my heart skip a beat. I could not grab my credit card fast enough. And I was not alone. In less than 3 hours, 130 donors fulfilled the $5000 fundraising goal. I am tremendously proud to have had the chance to donate to this cause.
While there are no surviving pictures of Dr. Crumpler, her headstone inscription—dedicated on July 16, 2020 in Hyde Park, Boston—reads: “The community and the Commonwealth’s four medical schools honor Dr. Rebecca Crumpler for her ceaseless courage, pioneering achievements and historic legacy as a physician, author, nurse, missionary, and advocate for health equity, and social justice.”
By the time you read this column, National Women Physicians Day, celebrated each year on February 3, will have come and gone, but I hope Dr. Crumpler’s extraordinary story continues to light the path for women of all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes to pursue their dreams. Dr. Crumpler taught me that anything is possible. Absolutely anything, if you dream big enough.