Because medical practitioners focus more on their patients than any notoriety, historical figures in medicine are often rendered obscure. Such is the case of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S.
Crumpler was born in 1831 and raised by an aunt who spent much of her time caring for infirm neighbors. The aunt likely influenced her choice to go into the medical profession, especially since medical care for the needs of poor blacks was almost non-existant during the antebellum years.
Between 1852 and 1860, Crumpler worked as a nurse in Charlestown, Mass. However, a wider door had been opened for women physicians across the country, possibly due to heavy demands for medical care of Civil War veterans, leading a new generation of women — including Crumpler — to pursue an M.D., which she earned in 1864 from New England Female Medical College.
“It was a significant achievement at the time because she was in the first generation of women of color to break into medical school, fight racism and sexism,” said Manon Parry, curator at the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine Division. “It was common theme that minority females went in to the profession to provide medical care for underserved communities.”
After the war, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Va., where her main focus was on the health needs of freed slaves. In her work with other black doctors, she tended to large groups of the poor and destitute that would have had little access to medical care and a new path was forged for healthcare in underserved communities. Her experience there, and later in Boston, led her to publish her now-renown Book of Medical Discourses In Two Parts, one of the first known medical writings by an African American and an early guidebook on public health.