Imagine being a physician in 1880 and writing a book that changes medicine as we know it. You put the pen to paper and begin:
I now present to the public a few thoughts in book form, trusting that they will be accepted on their merits alone. The following pages contain a few simple appeals to common sense, and are addressed to mothers, nurses, and women generally.Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler – Foreword to to “Book of Medical Discourses”
You mean every word of this. You hope, against hope unfortunately, to always be judged on merit alone. And you feel, rightfully, that women do not get their fair share in medicine, be it as a practitioner or a patient.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler didn’t just write those words, she lived this reality.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis in Pennsylvania in 1831. She lived a calm and somewhat protected youth under the tutelage of her aunt, who cared for the neighborhood sick. Around her 19th birthday she herself became a nurse, married Wyatt Lee, a freed slave, and began applying to medical schools after the death of his daughter from his first marriage due to lack of medical care.
Now, women were accepted into medical schools for a few years, already. Ever since Elizabeth Blackwell (February 3, 1821 – May 31, 1910), more and more female students chose this path. But being female and African-American… now, that was an issue. Even being male and African-American would have added hurdles.
She persisted and, in 1860, at 29 years old, was accepted int the New England Female Medical School, not without protests from staff and other students. Two factors helped her into medicine: male African-American students had been accepted into Union universities, largely to fuel the demand for physicians caring for Civil War veterans, and female students attended preciously few colleges, all of which struggled to make ends meet and accepted more students than ever. Pressured by a friend, she entered into a Scholarship competition and won, paying her tuition and living expenses. Of the 56’000 physicians in the United States in 1960, only 300 were female and only 120 were African-American males. No African-American female physicians existed.
Her husband died in 1863 from tuberculosis and she graduated a year later.
Dr. Rebecca Lee stayed in Boston, caring largely for the African-American population, particularly women and children. She did not have a lot of competition in this area.
A year later, at the end of the Civil War, she moved to Richmond, VA, to care for the African-American population there and to work with the Freedmen’s Bureau to care for freed slaves who did not receive care from white physicians, even in the Union North. She also married her second husband, a fugitive slave and Union Army veteran, Arthur Crumpler.
After months of racism and adversity as a female and African-American physician (some colleagues suggested the MD must be for “mule driver”), she left the Freedmen’s Bureau and moved back to Boston to open a free clinic for children in the African-American neighborhoods.
In 1873, she was accepted into one of the country’s most Ivy League schools at the time, the Allen School in West Newton, a famously progressive school admitting male and female students from all races. Arthur, her husband, had studied there as well after the war, and recommended she expand her horizon. She studied Mathematics, and, after graduating, taught Math, Medicine, and Nursing in Wilmington and New Castle, DE.
Yet, the lack of medical care and medical and social literacy in the African-American communities bothered her. She wrote and published a book in two parts, A Book of Medical Discourses, from which I took the foreword in the first paragraph.
The book focused on the need of medical literacy in nurses and standardized training in nursing, as well as a list of remedies by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann who had died a few years prior. Homeopathy was new and hot during those days and Dr. Crumpler’s book was a major influence towards the acceptance of those tinctures in the African-American population to this day. Of course we know today that Homeopathy is pure quack and at best useless. In 1883, however, it was the new hot thing.
Her second book addresses marital issues, sexuality, child birth and rearing. Extremely progressive topics for the time, even more so for the African-American population.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler died in 1895 and was, as were all African-Americans of the time, buried in an unmarked grave. Only later this year, in July, will a new gravestone be finally added to hers and Arthur’s grave.