February 24, 2021
By Nate Little
As part of Black History Month, the Phoenix present Nate’s Favorite Facts: A Journey Through African American History.
February 24th marks 157 years since Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African American Woman to achieve a Master’s Degree in Medicine in the United States. Born in 1831 in Delaware, Crumpler focused her entire career path in medicine, although it was very difficult for her to achieve such a goal. Although Black women received different levels of discrimination during the 19th century, a time when slavery was still legal in the United States, both genders still bore the weight from the inequities of lack of equal opportunities and freedoms in America.
Crumpler worked very hard in a nursing facility in Charlestown Massachusetts, where she was able to perform her work without any formal training for eight years. Despite her likely being denied formal training because of her race; she was able to train herself, be admitted in the New England Female Medical College, and earn the notable recognition of being the first and only Black American with a graduate degree from that institution.
“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 doctor of medicine."
(Book of Medical Discourses, Dr. Rebecca Crumpler, 1883)
Crumpler moved to Boston and then to Virginia around 1860. She felt she could be a proper addition for “real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” This work became a big influence when she noticed an improvement in her domain of work every hour of every day. With a population of “over 30,000 colored”, she and a team of black physicians treated freed slaves from injuries due to excessive manual labor. Without Crumpler and her co-physicians, many freed black slaves would not have access to their medical care, the progression of the Freedmen’s Bureau, or the missionary and community work. Crumpler knew that although her role as a physician was not deemed important the ‘superior’; she and her contemporary black physicians were motivated by the vicious racism, remarks, and verbal abuse throughout her work in the Postwar South. Today we honor her drive and her legacy as the first African American woman in the United States to earn her M.D.