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.
- Aspan, M. (2020, August 9). Why do black women account for less than 3% of U.S. doctors? Fortune. Retrieved 2021, from https://fortune.com/2020/08/09/health-care-racism-black-women-doctors/
- Diaz, contributed by: S. (2007, March 12). Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) . BlackPast. Retrieved 2021, from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/crumpler-rebecca-davis-lee-1831-1895/
- Keiser Family Foundation. (2022, February 7). Professionally active physicians by gender. KFF. Retrieved 2021, from https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/physicians-by-gender/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22%3A%22Location%22%2C%22sort%22%3A%22asc%22%7D
- National Institutes of Health. (2015, June 3). Changing the face of Medicine | Rebecca Lee Crumpler. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 2021, from https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_73.html
- Smith, K. J. (2019, June 10). Celebrating the first of the 2% – dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler. FemInEM. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://feminem.org/2019/06/10/celebrating-the-first-of-the-2-dr-rebecca-lee-crumpler/