As we enter the last week of Women’s History Month, it’s important to recognize women who have made history. Women have been practicing medicine since 2600 BCE in ancient Egypt. However, formal medical education as we know it was typically left to men. In fact, the 19th century saw the first wave of women being accepted into medical schools, and they faced censure for their determination. For women of color, this change was even more slow-going in America. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler made history by becoming the first African American woman to earn an MD in the United States.
Dr. Crumpler was born in Delaware in 1831, and she was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania. This aunt would often take care of sick neighbors, and Dr. Crumpler credited her in her decision to pursue medicine. Dr. Crumpler worked as a nurse for 8 years before applying to the New England Female Medical College in 1860. She is technically the only African American woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College, as it merged with the Boston University School of Medicine in 1873. After receiving her MD, Dr. Crumpler practiced in Boston, and when the Civil War ended, she moved to Virginia, where she provided health care for freed slaves, worked with the Freedmen's Bureau, and supported charity and missionary groups. She eventually moved back to Boston and continued to practice regardless of whether her patients could pay her.
Dr. Crumpler published one of the first medical works written by an African American. A Book of Medical Discourses, published in 1883, shared medical advice for women and children based on the journal notes she kept during her practice. Some of the comments she made in her book are insightful and foreshadow discoveries made centuries later - like her comments on how drinking alcohol during a woman’s pregnancy has negative effects on the child. Dr. Crumpler’s contributions to medicine and her dedication to supporting the people around her are qualities that every physician should strive to have. There is much to learn from the people that came before us and Dr. Crumpler is no different.
Thank you so much for reading!
- Adeba Mukul