Trailblazers of The United States: Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Over the past 150 years the role of women in American society has changed drastically. Women have gained the right to vote, fought for equal rights and representation, and made other great strides towards equality. Today, women still do not have equal representation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), including in the medical field. Historically only men were believed to have what it takes to be a physician, leaving women the role of nursing. In the early 1860s, only 0.6% of physicians in the United States were women. This number has changed over the years, and in 2020 thirty-six percent of all physicians in America were women (3,5). However, even within this growing percentage the numbers are not still representative of the United States demographics today.

Allow me to introduce you to Doctor Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Despite the prevalence of slavery at the time, Rebecca was born free in 1831 in Christiana, Delaware (1). She was raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania. Her aunt, known as the community nurse, found great joy in tending to her sick neighbors, which ignited a spark in young Rebecca’s heart. Rebecca stated in her book, A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts, “Having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to be in a position to relieve the sufferings of others” (4).

At the age of seventeen Rebecca attended a progressive private school in Massachusetts called West Newton English and Classical School, or the “Allen School” (2). Four years later she went on to join the medical field, stating “I devoted my time the best that I could, to nursing” (4). Rebecca worked tirelessly as a nurse for eight years, and colleagues began to notice. She was highly talented at her job and managed to gain the favor of several doctors. Despite it never having been done before, these prestigious colleagues of hers recommended her to attend medical school at The New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts to acquire the training equal to her talents and work ethic. 

Elated with this new opportunity, Rebecca matriculated at New England Female Medical School in 1860. She was the first and only Black woman to attend this medical school (2). Even though she was accepted, it was revolutionary for this school to teach a woman medicine, and Rebecca likely faced racism from her classmates, professors, and bystanders for being an outlier among revolutionaries…a Black woman training to be a doctor. Despite the trials that she surely faced, Rebecca graduated four years later in 1864 at the age of thirty-three, upon her graduation becoming the first Black woman to earn her “Doctress in Medicine” (2). 

Rebecca practiced medicine in Boston upon her graduation, but longed for more challenges. In 1865 the Civil War ended, bringing new opportunities for her to pursue “the proper field for real missionary work” (2). She moved to Richland, Virginia where she cared for newly freed African Americans at the Freedmen’s Bureau. It was evident that Rebeccas’s heart was dedicated to caring for the underprivileged and underserved, and very quickly her colleagues in the Bureau began to notice this. Towards the end of 1866, Rebecca was given “access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored”; people who likely had little access to healthcare during this time (2).

Once her time in Virginia was up, Rebecca returned to Boston and “entered into the work [of medicine] with renewed rigor” (2). She stated that with her renewed passion she began this work, primarily on hospitalized children, not out of a desire for wealth, but for the goodness of the community. In 1883 she published her book, A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts, which contained personal journal entries during her time of practicing medicine. In her book Rebecca focuses on the health of mothers and infants, covering topics such as “the better mode of washing the new-born”, “nursing from the breast made easy”, “artificial nursing”, and many more topics focused towards helping new mothers and children (2).

It was Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s passion to provide medical care to women and lesser-privileged people that enabled her to jump the hurdle and become the first Black female doctor, proving that Black women are not only capable of practicing medicine, but are able to thrive and improve the welfare of their communities. However, Dr. Crumpler’s fight continues to this day. In 2020, thousands of women have overcome the hurdle to lead today’s medical professionals. However, despite it being 150 years after Rebecca began her journey, as of 2020 only three percent of physicians are Black women, less than one-third of the number needed to be representative of the US population today (4).

This country has made great strides, but it is clear that we still have a long way to go. Rebecca never lost sight of who she was fighting to care for, despite the harsh environment that she encountered and the many setbacks that she faced by simply being born a Black woman. Today, we can look back at and reflect on Rebecca’s accomplishments, and use her story to inspire us to continue this fight for the future of equality and fair representation in healthcare. 


  1. Aspan, M. (2020, August 9). Why do black women account for less than 3% of U.S. doctors? Fortune. Retrieved 2021, from
  2. Diaz, contributed by: S. (2007, March 12). Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) . BlackPast. Retrieved 2021, from
  3. Keiser Family Foundation. (2022, February 7). Professionally active physicians by gender. KFF. Retrieved 2021, from
  4. National Institutes of Health. (2015, June 3). Changing the face of Medicine | Rebecca Lee Crumpler. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 2021, from
  5. Smith, K. J. (2019, June 10). Celebrating the first of the 2% – dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler. FemInEM. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from 

Trailblazers of the United States: Elizabeth Blackwell, MD

The United States of America began with a fight for representation. Every moment of this country’s history has been marked with strides towards true freedom for all. Women in America have had to fight for every right that they currently have, and be activists for this cause today. Over the past 150 years, the role of the traditional American woman has evolved from a domestic housewife to professor, soldier, medical professional, and so much more. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) have historically been comprised of male-dominated fields, with the few exceptions of trades traditionally seen in a feminine light. In an era of great change, we should look back and see who we have to thank for beginning the fight for equality that we are still advocating for today¹.

Prior to the 1860s, medicine was administered by practitioners with no formal education. In the 1850s one could practice medicine as an “unlicensed physician”. An unlicensed physician was a person who apprenticed under a licensed physician until they had enough knowledge to begin practicing medicine on their own. However, these individuals had no formal education from a medical school and were likely a huge liability. This likely made the medical field more diverse, and there were a handful of women who practiced unlicensed. However at this time there were no licensed female physicians⁵. 

Despite this bustle in the administration, women in early medicine were still confined to traditionally feminine roles and had positions such as midwives and herbalists². In the early 1800s women were not allowed to attend college, so they trained through apprenticeships to do mundane, non-medical tasks such as cleaning floors, washing dishes, and feeding patients³. Still, nursing did not become a career that could be gained via education until Florence Nightingale’s time in the 1860s. This new wave of nursing was eventually brought to America when Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing became the first nursing institute in the United States⁴.

The women that braved medical work faced great discimination, even amongst themselves. Florence Nightingale herself once said that “nurses are not ‘Medical Men’”, and to “avoid the semblance of encouraging such gross ignorance”⁶. However, this did not stop these trailblazing women from prospering. Let’s take a look at the story of the first women in the United States to earn a medical degree, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. 

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in 1821. She immigrated with her family of eleven to New York when she was eleven-years-old⁷. She was the daughter of progressive Quakers; her father, Samuel Blackwell, was an abolitionist who moved his family to several big cities across the country and advocated for rights such as freeing African Americans. Unfortunately, Samuel died when Elizabeth was seventeen years old, leaving the family impoverished. To keep her family afloat, Elizabeth, her mother, and two of her sisters began teaching and opened their own private school: The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies⁸. 

Family portrait of the Blackwell family from Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute

Elizabeth Blackwell had the spirit of her father, and desired to break societal norms. After years of teaching, she became interested in medicine while having a conversation with a terminally ill friend of hers. Her friend confided in Blackwell that she believed that if she could have received care from a woman instead of a man that her quality of care would have been far greater and her health would be much better. This conversation sparked something in Blackwell, and she became more curious about the medical world. She was particularly interested in the negative effects of doctors not washing their hands before performing procedures⁹. With this newfound curiosity, Blackwell decided to break free of her traditional societal roles and pursue a formal education in medicine¹º.

Blackwell applied to over 10 medical schools with no avail. She was even advised to disguise herself as a man in order to gain acceptance, but she refused the blasphemy and persisted on. She eventually got her foot in the door when the admission group at Geneva Medical School thought her application to be a joke and egged it on. During her years of schooling at Geneva, Blackwell faced harsh criticism. She was not allowed to attend labs, was forced to sit separately from her male classmates in lectures. This judgement did not end when she left the doors of Geneva; at every turn in town someone was there telling her just how wrong it was for her to attend medical school and how she should stick to being a woman¹¹. Despite all of this, she gradually gained the favor of her peers and graduated first in her class in 1849, becoming the first woman in America to earn a medical degree. 

Admission ticket for lectures and dissection rooms from Geneva Medical College

Unfortunately, Blackwell’s struggle did not end at graduation. For years she continued to face prejudice and was unable to find a job that would allow a female doctor to practice. Even long after her father had passed, Blackwell still carried his fighting spirit for moral justice. After twelve long years of searching for a job that would allow a woman to practice medicine, she eventually found work caring for union soldiers during the Civil War. After her time on the battlefield, she moved around New England and eventually settled back in New York; there she set up shop and found purpose tending to underprivileged people in the very city that initially accepted her as an immigrant years ago. 

Despite the trials and tribulations that she faced, Dr. Blackwell set the stage for what would soon become a prosperous career path for many women, including her own sister, Emily Blackwell¹².  Not only did she fight for gender representation in healthcare, she fought for the rights of women to learn and gain an education just as men can. Today we can thank Elizabeth Blackwell for setting the stage for women of all ages to pursue a career in STEM. Blackwell made great strides for all American women, and she also set the stage for an even more revolutionary thought: African American women in prominent healthcare positions.


  1. Johnson, Megan. “A Majority of Younger Physicians Are Female.” Athena Health, 14 Feb. 2018,,under%2040%20percent%20are%20male
  2. Robertson, Lauren, and Susan Walters Schmid. “Florida: Laws and Rules of Nursing.” ATrain Education, Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.
  3. “A Brief Look at the History of Nursing.” Advent Health University Online,’s%2C%20nursing%20began,now%20fulfilled%20by%20academic%20institutions. Accessed 28 Oct. 2020.
  4. Passmore, Susan. “A Timeline of Nursing Education.” The Sentinel Watch, 5 Mar. 2020,,features%20a%20one%2Dyear%20program
  5. Wikipedia contributors. “Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery.” Wikipedia, 13 Jan. 2021,
  6. Nightingale, Florence. “Florence Nightingale’s Letter of Advice to Bellevue.” JSTOR, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Feb. 1911,
  7. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Elizabeth Blackwell British American Physician.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Jan. 2021,
  8. Famous Scientists. “Elizabeth Blackwell – Biography, Facts and Pictures.” Famous Scientists, 15 Aug. 2018,,French%20Academy%20for%20Young%20Ladies
  9. Michaels, Debra. “Elizabeth Blackwell.” National Women’s History Museum, 2015, 
  10. Weiner, Stacy. “Celebrating 10 Women Medical Pioneers.” National Women’s History Museum, 3 Mar. 2020,,care%20from%20a%20female%20doctor.n
  11. Ruth, Janice E. “Letter, Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron Concerning Women’s Rights and the Education of Women Physicians, 4 March 1851.” American Memory, Accessed 13 Oct. 2020.
  12. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Elizabeth Blackwell | Biography & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Jan. 2021,