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Dr. Crumpler: Nation’s first African American woman physician

Anthony W. Neal
Dr. Crumpler: Nation’s first African American woman physician

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler holds the distinction of being the first African American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree—an accomplishment previously credited to Dr. Rebecca Cole. Crumpler was born in Delaware on February 8, 1831, the daughter of Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis. But she was raised in Pennsylvania by a kind aunt, whose service to the sick was constantly sought. No doubt that aunt inspired her niece; Rebecca relished relieving the suffering of others. In 1852, she moved to Charlestown, Mass. and pursued her passion, working as a nurse for eight years.      

The doctors under whom she served recommended her to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College (NEFMC) in Boston. She attended that school and obtained her M.D. on March 1, 1864, when few blacks were allowed to gain admittance to medical schools.

Rebecca Crumpler was the only woman of color to graduate from the NEFMC, closed in 1873.

Dr. Crumpler was a compassionate woman who gave her all, caring for sick patients and expecting little in return. She practiced for a short time in Boston before moving to Richmond, Va, where she treated ill freedpeople through the Freedmen’s Bureau. She described her experience in Richmond “as the proper field for real missionary work, and one which would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.”

In 1869 she returned home to Boston. The city directories of 1870 and 1872 show that she settled down at 20 Garden St. with her husband, Arthur. She then performed her “work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in the measure, of remuneration.” 

No details are known about her husband or his relationship with Crumpler; however, I recently discovered an April 3, 1898 Boston Globe article about a black man named Arthur Crumpler. It reveals fascinating facts that strongly suggest that Crumpler’s  husband was indeed Arthur Crumpler. The story reports Arthur was born a slave in 1824 in Southampton County, Va. on the estate of Robert Adams, a large Virginia landowner. Arthur’s enslaved father, Samuel, lived on the estate of Benjamin Crumpler, which adjoined the Adams estate.    

After the Civil War broke out, Arthur, along with thousands of other fugitive slaves, fled to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va. Escaped slaves called it “Freedom’s Fortress” because those slaves who reached the fort were considered contraband and were not returned to their owners. At that time, Fort Monroe was under the command of Major General Benjamin F. Butler, who would later become the governor of Massachusetts. A blacksmith by trade, Arthur shod horses for the Union Army. 

He left Fort Monroe for Boston on July 6, 1862, showing up in the city three days later. He told the Globe that on reaching Boston, he was cordially received by anti-slavery people. This is corroborated by the abolitionist, teacher, and philanthropist Nathaniel T. Allen., who wrote in his diary on February 20, 1863, that a number of black people, “contrabands,” had come to West Newton to find employment, much to the disgust of certain Irish laborers, and that among them was Arthur Crumpler. Allen said that he befriended Arthur and took him in, allowing him to sleep in his barn and to perform chores. In November, 1863, noted Allen, Arthur cast his first vote, after being challenged on every possible ground the authorities could trump up, owning to the prejudice against him as a Southern black man.

Arthur Crumpler probably met Rebecca through his association with Nathaniel Allen. According to Allen’s biographer, Mary Anne Greene, Allen founded the English and Classical School in West Newton, Mass., appropriately known as the Allen School. She noted that Arthur married a woman of his own race who had studied at the Allen School, taken a course in medicine in Boston, and practiced her profession there and in the South.  Although he did not mention Rebecca by name, Arthur Crumpler did tell the Globe that he married shortly after coming to the city. Moreover, Rebecca is known to have married an Arthur Crumpler around the time that she graduated from the NEFMC, which would have been within two years of Arthur’s arrival in Boston. 

In 1898, Arthur Crumpler told the Globe that four years after arriving in the city, he “made a good living taking care of stores in Boston,” an occupation he then held. The city directories of the period reveal that by 1870 the Arthur Crumpler who resided with Rebecca Crumpler was a porter at 122 Tremont Street. One type of porter does routine cleaning, as in a hospital or an office. Thus, “taking care of stores” probably meant that Arthur routinely cleaned stores.     

Unable to read or write, he attended the Wells Night School at his wife’s suggestion, but bad eyesight brought him no success. Seeing her husband’s disappointment, it is very likely that Rebecca was the one who told Arthur that she would do all his reading and writing for him. She  did—right up to the time of her death. Finally, Arthur Crumpler informed the Globe that his wife had passed away “about four years ago,” which was within a year of the actual date of Rebecca Crumpler’s death.

Dr. Crumpler had moved to Hyde Park and stopped practicing medicine by 1880. The U.S. federal census record that year listed her occupation as “keeping house.” In 1883 she published “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” a valuable volume of medical advice regarding women and children and one of the first medical publications authored by an African American. She dedicated the book to “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race,” and she offered it primarily to educate women on the various ways of preventing deadly diseases.

The 145-page volume covered a variety of topics, including: washing and dressing the newborn, breastfeeding, proper and improper diet, the causes and prevention of cholera in infants, the cure for hemorrhoids, the treatment of diphtheria, the management of measles, and the treatment of burns and scalds.

In her book, Dr. Crumpler also offered some priceless matrimonial advice to single young women. “It is best for a young woman to accept a suitor who is respectable, vigorous, industrious, but a few years her senior, if not equal age,” she noted.

The way to stay happily married, she advised, “is to continue in the careful routine of the courting days, till it becomes well understood between the two.”

Described in her early 60s as “tall and straight, with light brown skin and gray hair,” Dr. Crumpler was a “very pleasant and intellectual woman, and an indefatigable church worker.” She and her husband were members of Twelfth Baptist Church on Phillips St. He served on its board of trustees.

On July 22, 1894, The Boston Globe wrote, “Dr. Rebecca Crumpler is the one woman who, as a physician, made an enviable place for herself in the ranks of the medical fraternity.”

While still a resident of Hyde Park, she died in Fairview, Mass. on March 9, 1895.