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Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Kathryn S Gardiner  | Published on 9/1/2018

Forgotten Foremothers
Profiles of Lesser-Known Heroines in the Fight for Women's Rights


As a little girl in the 1830s, Rebecca sat on the floor of her aunt’s home, watching as the old, the sick, and the suffering came to the door for help. Rebecca was born free to her parents in Delaware, but was raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania, and this aunt was a caregiver, an unofficial doctor to those in need. In watching these interactions, with her keen mind and strong will, Rebecca found her passion in life. “I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others,” she wrote in A Book of Medical Discourses.

This would be one of the first medical books written by an African-American author, and Rebecca herself would be the first African-American woman to become a licensed physician.

 



After her early education at her aunt’s side, Rebecca attended schools in Massachusetts where she was noted as a “special student of mathematics.” In 1852, she married Wyatt Lee, a Virginia man and former slave. It was during their marriage that Rebecca worked as a nurse and began her medical studies at New England Female Medical College. At that time, it was uncommon for women or black men to be permitted to attend the institution. Of the 54,543 physicians in the United States in 1860, only 300 were women and none of those were African-American women. Rebecca’s prodigious intelligence and talent gained her admission, though not without resistance from faculty.

Wyatt Lee died in 1863 of tuberculosis and did not get to see his wife make history just one year later. Rebecca Lee graduated college as a Doctor of Medicine in 1864, a year before the end of the Civil War.

Dr. Rebecca Lee’s focus throughout her career was the health and care of women and children. She married Arthur Crumpler in 1865 and the two would go on to have one daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler. Arthur Crumpler had been a fugitive slave and served the Union Army as a blacksmith. In the years a]er the Civil War, Rebecca took special interest in providing health care to freed slaves who had been turned away by white physicians, regardless of their ability to give payment for treatment. Like her parents, she faced extreme racism and sexism. Male doctors often snubbed her, pharmacists would refuse to fill her prescriptions, and members of the general populace would mock or doubt her degrees and education.

A Book of Medical Discourses published in 1883 and Rebecca dedicated it to nurses and mothers, compiling the knowledge gained during her career serving the undervalued and the ignored. The book focused primarily on two topics—“the treatment, prevention, and cure of infantile bowel complaints” from a child’s teething period under age five, and the specific health concerns of women and their “distressing complaints” from youth to maturity.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler died on March 9, 1895, and was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Massachusetts. Her Boston home is now a stop on the Boston’s Women Heritage Trail. The Rebecca Lee Society for African-American women physicians was named in her honor, and Syracuse University boasts The Rebecca Lee Pre-Health Society, a student organization “dedicated to promoting and encouraging diversity in health professions.”