Rebecca Lee Crumbler was an American nurse and physician, born in 1831 and graduated from New England Medical School, and was the first African-American doctor in the history of the United States of America, who died in 1895.
She secured her place in the historical record through her reference book, The Book of Medical Discourses, published in 1883, in which she provided a brief summary of her career.
She was one of the first women to combine private practice with community service, and in her work she cared for African Americans in the southern United States after the Civil War, earning the respect of many in the medical profession, despite the racism and racial discrimination to which she was subjected.
She overcame the harshest societal constraints by choosing a career that was out of reach for "blacks" at the time, and devoted her life to the study and treatment of gynecology and children. Her early successes led to the creation of a foundation in her name to promote African women's access to the medical profession, an honor that had long forgotten her name.
Birth and upbringing
Rebecca Davis Lee Crumbler was born on February 8, 1831 in Christiana, Delaware, United States, to African-American parents, Matilda Weber and Absolom Davis.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, she was raised by her aunt who regularly cared for her sick neighbors, and this early experience inspired her to study medicine and seek any opportunity to alleviate the suffering of others.
In 1852 she added her husband's last name (White Lee) to her name, and the tragedy of the death of her son Albert at the age of 7 was a catalyst for studying nursing.
Her second husband, Arthur, described her as a kind, intelligent, and tireless working woman who loved and practiced sports at home.
There are no known photographs of Rebecca, and the photo that accompanies the writings about her is believed to belong to Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African-American nurse in the United States. What is known about her life came only from the introduction to her book, in which she provided a summary of her career path.
Study and scientific training
In 1852 Rebecca studied in her spare time at the West Newton School English and Classics in Massachusetts, excelling in mathematics.
She then devoted her time to nursing training under the supervision of different doctors over a period of 8 years, and was able to perform this work without any formal education, as there was no school in this field at the time.
Because of the unique talent she showed during her training, her supervising physician made a recommendation for intervention at New England Female Medical School.
The faculty hesitantly registered her admission to the college, arguing that she might show "slow progress in learning," but despite its reservations, it acquiesced to the committee of trustees, the persuasion of the doctors Rebecca worked with, and the need for medical attention for veterans during the American Civil War.
In 1860, Rebecca became the first and only African-American woman to study medicine, at a time when most African-American medical schools were barred from attending.
She had to stop her studies to care for her ailing husband, and after his death she asked to resume her studies. Despite the professors' resentment of her return, she received significant support and received a scholarship from the Wade Scholarship Fund, set up by Benjamin Wade, an abolitionist in Ohio.
Despite the difficult curriculum, and the loneliness she felt as the only African student, she worked hard for 3 years, attending 17-week preparatory classes with doctor-supervised training in her last two years.
The study required 30 hours per week, good English language instruction, the preparation of a thesis on some medical subjects, and the payment of graduation fees.
On February 24, 1864, she successfully took her final exams, and on March <>, the Committee of Trustees awarded her a Doctor of Medicine degree, identifying her as "Mrs. Rebecca Lee, Negro," according to minutes of the meeting held in the archives of Boston University.
At 33, she was the first African-American to earn the degree, and the only one to graduate from New England's Female Medical School, which closed in 1873 and merged with Boston Medical School.
After graduation, she trained briefly in the British Dominican, specializing in gynecology and pediatrics.
In her twenties, Rebecca began her career as a nurse in Charles Town, Massachusetts, near Cambridge in 1852.
She first began practicing medicine in Boston in 1864, becoming one of 54543,270 doctors in the country, 180 of whom were women and <> were African-American men, according to historian Vanessa Northington Gamble.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, Rebecca moved to the suburb of Richmond, Virginia, to do what she considered a "real missionary act." She joined Friedman's office, created by Congress in 1865 to provide food, shelter and medical care to some 4 million freed slaves.
She was initially unwelcomed, subjected to racial discrimination, treated contemptuously by male doctors, refused to dispense her prescriptions, ridiculed, and her doctor was said to be nothing more than a "mule driver."
In the last quarter of 1866, she had provided medical care to 30,<> "black" people whom "white" doctors refused to treat.
By 1869 Rebecca had returned to Boston's (predominantly black) Beacon Hill neighborhood, established her own clinic, and continued to treat the disease in poor women and children. In 1880 she moved to Hyde Park in the southern part of Boston, and was said to have not practiced medicine in the last years of her life.
Rebecca Crumbler is the author of "The Medical Letter Book" in which she provides a summary of her career (Al Jazeera)
The first medical publication
In 1883 Rebecca Crumbler published a reference book, ABook of Medical Discourses, in two parts of the clinical notes she gained during her medical career.
Historians believe it was the first medical publication written by an African-American author, copies of which are preserved in the National Library of Medicine in Washington and in the Contway Medical Library at Harvard Medical School.
It covers topics that were not researched in depth at the time, as the first section focused on methods of treatment, prevention and recovery of bowel problems in children, which can occur during the period of tooth appearance and up to the age of five. The second section focused on the health effects of early marriage and how to maintain women's health before, during and after childbirth.
Rebecca in her book did not endorse the homeopathic method (the principle of treatment of the origin of the cause), but preferred to use a moderate amount of the usual drug, recommending the use of many in her articles.
The book is generally devoted to her professional experience, including some personal details about her life, and describing the experiences that led her to study and practice medicine.
Rebecca's role as a physician received little attention, she was excluded from most of the history of American medicine, there is little information in the official records available about her, and about 25 years after her death there were 65 "black" female doctors in the United States in 1920.
Antiquities and honors
- The city of Boston celebrated Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumbler's Day, on her 190th birthday in 2021, for her pioneering achievements in medicine.
- Rebecca's tombstone is erected in honor of her legacy, 125 years after her death in 2020, thanks to friends of the Hyde Park Branch Library.
- In 2019, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared March 30 as Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day (also National Physicians Day).
- In 1989, doctors founded the Rebecca Lee Foundation to promote African-American women's access to the medical profession.
- A memorial plaque was erected in her station home on Boston Women's Heritage Road.
Rebecca died of fibroids on March 9, 1895, at the age of 64, and was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park without a headstone.