Overlooked No More: Rebecca Lee Crumpler, Who Battled Prejudice in Medicine

This article is a part of Overlooked, a collection of obituaries about exceptional folks whose deaths, starting in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

For greater than 125 years, folks trampled — unknowingly — throughout the grass the place Rebecca Lee Crumpler rests in peace alongside her husband, Arthur, at Fairview Cemetery in Boston.

Her burial plot was devoid of a headstone regardless that she held a singular distinction: She was the primary Black lady to obtain a medical diploma in the United States.

It would take greater than a century, from her loss of life in 1895 till final yr, for Crumpler to be given correct recognition by a bunch of Black historians and physicians. Were it not for them, she would possibly nonetheless be languishing in anonymity.

They had discovered of Crumpler by way of the Rebecca Lee Society, a help group for Black ladies physicians in the 1980s, now believed to be defunct, that might sometimes roam the tree-lined grounds of the cemetery, close to the sting of Mill Pond, in the Hyde Park neighborhood, in search of any proof of her plot. People knew she had died in that neighborhood, and had consulted metropolis information, however all they discovered was a brown patch of filth the place a headstone ought to have been positioned after interment.

Since her loss of life, Crumpler’s legacy has been muddled by incorrect info. Some mistakenly thought that she was the second Black lady to be awarded a medical faculty diploma, after Rebecca Cole, however Cole graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania three years after Crumpler earned her diploma from the New England Female Medical College (now a part of the Boston University School of Medicine) in 1864.

Several books and articles have featured pictures of a girl presupposed to be Crumpler, regardless that no photos of her are identified to exist. In “Gutsy Women,” a 2019 e-book by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton that celebrates traditionally vital ladies, there’s a picture alongside an entry on Crumpler — however it’s truly a photograph of Mary Eliza Mahoney, the nation’s first Black licensed nurse.

After the Civil War, Crumpler labored for the medical division of the United States Bureau of Refugees, often known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, an company created by Congress throughout Reconstruction to offer companies for emancipated slaves whom white physicians refused to see. But all through her life, she was ignored, slighted or rendered insignificant, even invisible.

Because of her race and gender, Crumpler was denied admitting privileges to native hospitals, had bother getting prescriptions stuffed by pharmacists and was usually ridiculed by directors and fellow medical doctors. Still she persevered, with the information that Black communities had an elevated danger of sickness as a result of they had been subjected to troublesome residing situations and a scarcity of entry to preventive care.

“She focused on prevention, nutrition and attaining financial stability for one’s family, all relevant factors today,” Melody McCloud, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Atlanta, mentioned by telephone. “Dr. Crumpler was a pioneer who blazed a trail upon which many other Black female physicians have trod, and now tread.”

McCloud, who urged Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia to declare March 30, 2019, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day — and who’s making an attempt to get a monument for Crumpler erected in Richmond, the place she practiced drugs from 1865 to 1869 — was additionally a curator of an exhibition about Crumpler’s profession on the Boston University School of Medicine.

Rebecca Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis on Feb. eight, 1831, in Christiana, Del., to Matilda Weber and Absolum Davis. She defined her preliminary curiosity in therapeutic in “A Book of Medical Discourses” (1883):

“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.”

After marrying Wyatt Lee, a Virginia laborer, in 1852, she relocated to Charlestown, Mass. She labored as a nurse there, helping a number of medical doctors in the Boston space. They in flip supported her software to the New England Female Medical College, the place she was awarded a state-funded scholarship.

After two years, nevertheless, she took a go away of absence to take care of her ailing husband, who died of tuberculosis in 1863. She returned seven months later to finish her remaining time period however was almost stymied after some college members expressed reservations relating to the period of time it had taken her to finish her coursework.

Several of the college’s patrons who had been concerned in the abolitionist motion supplied their help. On March 1, 1864, the trustees voted to confer on her a “Doctress of Medicine” diploma. She was 33.

At the time, mentioned Vanessa Northington Gamble, a doctor, historian and professor at George Washington University, there have been 54,543 physicians in the nation; 270 of them had been ladies — all white — and 180 had been Black males.

The New England Female Medical College would shut in 1873 with out ever conferring one other medical diploma on a Black lady.

In 1865, Rebecca Lee married Arthur Crumpler, who had arrived in Boston three years earlier as a fugitive slave and later labored as a porter. The couple had one daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler, in 1870, however she is believed to have died younger.

The burial plot for Crumpler and her husband, Arthur, at Fairview Cemetery in Boston. Their graves had been unmarked till a bunch of physicians and historians raised the cash for his or her gravestones.Credit…Friends of the Hyde Park Library

By 1869, the Crumplers had moved again to Boston. They lived in the North Slope of Beacon Hill, then a predominantly Black group.

“A cheerful home,” Crumpler wrote, “with a small tract of land in the country with wholesome food and water is worth more to preserve health and life than a house in a crowded city with luxuries and 20 rooms.”

Her home, at 67 Joy Street, now has a plaque honoring her and is a cease on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

From that home, Crumpler handled principally ladies and kids, no matter their skill to pay. Her e-book, devoted to nurses and moms, is seen as a precursor to “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” (1984), thought of the prenatal bible for numerous pregnant ladies. It is stuffed with admonishments.

“Children should not be asked if they like such and such things to eat, with the privilege of choosing that which will give them no nourishment to the blood,” Crumpler wrote. She additionally mentioned, “Parents should hold onto their children, and children should stand by their parents, until the last strand of the silken cord is broken.”

An article in 1894 in The Boston Globe described her e-book as “valuable” and Crumpler as “a very pleasant and intellectual woman” and “an indefatigable church worker.”

Crumpler died of fibroid tumors on March 9, 1895. She was 64. Her husband died in 1910.

In 2019 Vicki Gall, a historical past buff and president of the Friends of the Hyde Park Library, started a fund-raising marketing campaign to have gravestones put in for them each. They had been added at a ceremony on July 16, 2020, which Gall led.

“I didn’t do this as a feel-good moment,” Gall mentioned by telephone. “It was a historical moment. She didn’t know the importance of what she was doing at the time, but we recognize it now.”

There isn’t any extra trampled grass close to the resting website of Rebecca Lee Crumpler. Instead, there’s an awakening of her contributions to the medical group. As she wrote in “A Book of Medical Discourses”: “What we need today in every community is not a shrinking or flagging of womanly usefulness in this field of labor, but renewed and courageous readiness to do when and wherever duty calls.”