Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler MD, First African American Female Physician
Rebecca Crumpler plaque. Source: Kate Kelly, americacomesalive.com
Cover of A Book of Medical Discourses by Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Source: nih.gov; Wikipedia; The National Library of Medicine believes this item to be in the public domain
Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, nee Davis, (February 8, 1831 – March 9, 1895) was the first African-American woman to become a physician in the United States. She married Arthur Crumpler who had served with the Union Army during the American Civil War. Her publication of A Book of Medical Discourses in 1883 was one of the first written by an African American about medicine. Rebecca Davis was born in 1831 in Christiana, Delaware to Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis. She was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt who cared for infirm neighbors. Crumpler later attended the elite West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts where she was a special student in mathematics. Crumpler moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts where she married Wyatt Lee, a Virginia native on April 19, 1852. During the next eight years, she was employed as a nurse until she was accepted into the New England Female Medical College in 1860. It was rare for women or black men to be admitted to medical schools during this time, and during the antebellum years, medical care for poor blacks was almost non-existent.
When the Civil War began, Crumpler was forced to quit her school. She went back to college in 1863, but her financial aid was no longer available. To complete her schooling, she won a tuition award from the Wade Scholarship Fund, which was established by the Ohio abolitionist, Benjamin Wade. When she graduated in 1864, Rebecca Lee was the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree, and the only African-American woman to graduate from New England Female Medical College. The school closed in 1873, without graduating another black woman, when it merged with Boston University. Crumpler describes the progression of experiences that led her to study and practice medicine in her A Book of Medical Discourses (1883):
“It may be well to state here that, 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 relieve the sufferings of others. Later in life I devoted my time, when best I could, to nursing as a business, serving under different doctors for a period of eight years (from 1852 to 1860); most of the time at my adopted home in Charlestown, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. From these doctors I received letters commending me to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College, whence, four years afterward, I received the degree of Doctress of Medicine.“
Crumpler first practiced medicine in Boston, primarily for poor women and children. During this time she “sought training in the ‘British Dominion.’ In St. John, New Brunswick, on May 24, 1865, Rebecca married Arthur Crumpler, a former fugitive slave from Virginia who had served with the Union Army at Fort Monroe, Virginia. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, believing it to be
“a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children. During my stay there nearly every hour was improved in that sphere of labor. The last quarter of the year 1866, I was enabled to have access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored.“
Crumpler worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves; She was subject to “intense racism“: “men doctors snubbed her, druggist balked at filling her prescriptions, and some people wisecracked that the M.D. behind her name stood for nothing more than ‘Mule Driver.“ By the time she moved back to Boston her neighborhood in Joy Street, Beacon Hill was a predominantly African-American community. She
“entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration.“
Rebecca and Arthur were active members of the Twelfth Baptist Church where Arthur was a trustee, and in mid-December, 1870, their daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler, was born at their 20 Garden Street home. When Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner died in 1874, Rebecca was in Delaware. At a service in his honor,
“Rebecca Crumpler, MD read a beautiful original poem on the death of Sumner wherein she touchingly alluded to his love for the gifted Emerson.“
By 1880 Rebecca and Arthur had moved to Hyde Park, Boston. There was no great demand for her service in the community. She was no longer practicing medicine by 1883, when she published A Book of Medical Discourses from the notes she kept over the course of her medical career. It was dedicated to nurses and mothers, and focused on the medical care of women and children. Although “no photos or other images“ of Rebecca Crumpler survive a Boston Globe article described her this way.
“She is a very pleasant and intellectual woman and an indefatigable church worker. Dr. Crumpler is 59 or 60 years of age, tall and straight, with light brown skin and gray hair.“
A drawing of Arthur Crumpler, however, has survived. It appears in the feature article about him previously cited. Rebecca Crumpler died on March 9, 1895 and is buried at the Fairview Cemetery near her residence in Hyde Park. She was survived by her husband, Arthur, who died in Boston in 1910. The Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African-American women, was named in her honor. Her home on Joy Street is a stop on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
Arthur Crumpler, Husband of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Sketch of Arthur Crumpler, Boston Daily Globe from 1898
Source: Kate Kelly, americacomesalive.com
Arthur Crumpler escaped slavery and overcame the fact that slaves were prevented from learning to read or write; he attended night school when he was in his sixties. The article in The Boston Daily Globe in 1898 about him as a good student was a well-deserved bonus but he had already lived a full and productive life. Crumpler was born a slave in Southampton County, Virginia. He belonged to Robert Adams who owned the estate where his mother worked. Arthur’s father, Samuel, a slave on a neighboring plantation, was owned by a white man named Benjamin Crumpler. While Arthur belonged to his mother’s master, he took his name from the surname his father must have used. When Arthur was nine, his master died unexpectedly. Because Robert Adams had several sons, his estate (including the slaves) needed to be sold to apportion the wealth among his children. Arthur had liked living on the Adams estate, so he came up with an idea that he thought might get the attention of Robert Adams’s oldest son, John. Arthur approached John and said, “John, I can wrestle you down!“ as he told a Boston reporter many years later. John didn’t believe that a nine-year-old slave boy could take him down, but Arthur was strong and tough. Before long the young white master had had enough. Arthur’s gamble paid off as he had hoped – he earned John’s admiration. All of the other slaves were sold, but John kept Arthur for himself. John Adams took Arthur with him to Smithfield, Virginia, for a year. Then Adams decided it would be more profitable to lease Arthur to other men. He made a deal with a slave trader to take Arthur for four years. It is not clear what work this entailed, but at the end of the four years, Arthur was returned to John Adams. By this time, John had married, and his in-laws needed help. John gave them Arthur. While working for John Adams’s in-laws, Arthur worked at harvesting and processing apples. Arthur described to a reporter from The Boston Daily Globe an improvement he made to an apple-paring machine used on the plantation. John Adams stopped by to check on things one day. He observed what Crumpler could do with the mechanism he had fashioned. He removed Arthur from the in-laws’s apple farm and told Arthur he would give him his pick of a new trade. Arthur could choose carpentry, shoemaking, blacksmithing, or brick-laying. While no one quite knows what transpired here, Adams may have realized how capable Arthur was and wanted to put him in a job where Adams could make money from his work. But there is also the possibility that John Adams saw a way to profit from Arthur’s improvements on the device. By rewarding him with other options, it might keep him from telling others about his invention. There is no patent for an apple-parer that would match Arthur’s or John Adams’s dates or location, but it is still possible that Adams found a way to sell or benefit from Arthur’s accomplishment. Blacksmithing was Arthur’s choice of the new trade he wanted to learn so Adams arranged for him to apprentice to the local blacksmith. Arthur earned $250 per year plus clothing (it would have been usual for the master to take the money). Arthur learned blacksmithing, but soon seemed restless. Adams set him up in his own shop to try to keep him from running away as other slaves were doing.
When the Civil War began with the attack at Fort Sumter in 1861, the slaves in the Smithfield area saw their opportunity to escape. Crumpler and many others ran from their masters. They made their way to the Norfolk Navy Yard where they took refuge on the The U.S.S. Cumberland. The gunboat soon went on to Fort Monroe where many of the former slaves disembarked. Crumpler got a job at Fort Monroe to shoe horses, and he proved to be of great value to the Union in that capacity. Later he worked for Union General McClellan on the Virginia peninsula. By July 1862, Crumpler was ready to leave Fort Monroe and go to Boston where he knew other slaves had settled. He was supposed to collect $160 from the Union Army for his services. The quartermaster had to inform him that they couldn’t begin to pay him that much. Why didn’t he settle for $40? Crumpler was eager to move on, so he agreed. The Army wanted him to sign an agreement to accept $40 as compensation. “They took hold of my hand and held it while I made an �X’ to something.“ t was then that Arthur made a promise to himself:
“I made up my mind I would never make an X again beside my name written by someone else, and I have kept my word. I have learned to write.“
When Arthur Crumpler arrived in Boston, he was taken in by Nathaniel Topliff Allen who ran a school in Cambridge. Crumpler slept in the barn, and did chores to earn his keep. It is around this time that he must have met his future wife, Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler. (Rebecca had been previously married to a fellow named Wyatt Lee. Lee passed away in 1863.) Rebecca had been a student at Allen’s School, and Nathaniel Allen may have introduced the two. At any rate, Rebecca and Arthur were married in St. John, New Brunswick, on May 24, 1865. In 1870, Rebecca gave birth to their only child, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler. Rebecca set up a medical practice in Boston (she was the first African American female doctor), and Arthur may have switched from being a blacksmith to being a porter at this time. His work involved taking care of stores in Boston – an occupation that he pursued for many years. Both Arthur and Rebecca were devout and involved church members. Rebecca recognized Arthur’s interest in learning, and she encouraged him to sign up for night classes early in their marriage. But he became frustrated. To ease his discomfort, Rebecca offered to read and write for him – and she did so until her death in 1894. From an article in The Boston Daily Globe on April 3, 1898, we learn how Arthur Crumpler learned to manage on his own. “When she [Rebecca] passed away, I found that I should have to depend upon myself if I wanted to learn anything. I could not read the newspapers during the last war, but if we have a war now, I shall be able to read all about it myself. I can do my own signing, and I am not making any more crosses.“ The reporter writes that Arthur had spent the previous three years attending Franklin Evening School, a school that attracted a diverse immigrant student body as most people worked during the day and then took classes at night. “I find considerable pleasure in reading my Bible and papers and books. I sit down and practice my writing lessons, and write my own letters, and then I sit down and add up, subtract, multiply, and divide my figures all by myself. There is nothing to excuse any colored man or woman in the city of Boston from learning how to do these things,“ said Arthur to the reporter. The headline for the article was “Boston’s Oldest Pupil.“ (The article states that he was age 74 but in working through his personal details, it is more likely that he was 64 as he was probably born in 1834 or 1835.) The headline also could have been “Boston’s Happiest Pupil.“
Only once did Crumpler return to Virginia. He attended a reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic in Washington. He returned to Virginia afterward, looking for a sister. On the last day he had before returning to Boston, he heard news of her: she married and moved to Tarboro, North Carolina, and had several children. Before 1898 (when the article was published), Arthur re-connected with one family member. One of his sister’s children came north and located Arthur. In 1898, Crumpler was living in a one-room apartment on Piedmont Street. The apartment was filled with books and one well-displayed Bible. These must have given Arthur enormous pleasure. When Arhur Crumpler died in 1910, he left all his possessions to his niece Maggie King of 50 Hickory St. Orange, New Jersey. (Perhaps this was the child of his sister whom he met later in life.) As his executor, Arthur Crumpler named the reverend of the church he attended, the Calvary Baptist Church in Boston.