Dr. Crumpler: Nation’s first African American woman physician

Anthony W. Neal | 9/5/2012, 8:12 a.m.
Anthony W. NealDr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler...

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler holds the distinction of being the first African American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree—an accomplishment previously credited to Dr. Rebecca Cole. Crumpler was born in Delaware on February 8, 1831, the daughter of Matilda Webber and Absolum Davis. But she was raised in Pennsylvania by a kind aunt, whose service to the sick was constantly sought. No doubt that aunt inspired her niece; Rebecca relished relieving the suffering of others. In 1852, she moved to Charlestown, Mass. and pursued her passion, working as a nurse for eight years.      

The doctors under whom she served recommended her to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College (NEFMC) in Boston. She attended that school and obtained her M.D. on March 1, 1864, when few blacks were allowed to gain admittance to medical schools.

Rebecca Crumpler was the only woman of color to graduate from the NEFMC, closed in 1873.

Dr. Crumpler was a compassionate woman who gave her all, caring for sick patients and expecting little in return. She practiced for a short time in Boston before moving to Richmond, Va, where she treated ill freedpeople through the Freedmen’s Bureau. She described her experience in Richmond “as the proper field for real missionary work, and one which would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.”

In 1869 she returned home to Boston. The city directories of 1870 and 1872 show that she settled down at 20 Garden St. with her husband, Arthur. She then performed her “work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in the measure, of remuneration.” 

No details are known about her husband or his relationship with Crumpler; however, I recently discovered an April 3, 1898 Boston Globe article about a black man named Arthur Crumpler. It reveals fascinating facts that strongly suggest that Crumpler’s  husband was indeed Arthur Crumpler. The story reports Arthur was born a slave in 1824 in Southampton County, Va. on the estate of Robert Adams, a large Virginia landowner. Arthur’s enslaved father, Samuel, lived on the estate of Benjamin Crumpler, which adjoined the Adams estate.    

After the Civil War broke out, Arthur, along with thousands of other fugitive slaves, fled to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va. Escaped slaves called it “Freedom’s Fortress” because those slaves who reached the fort were considered contraband and were not returned to their owners. At that time, Fort Monroe was under the command of Major General Benjamin F. Butler, who would later become the governor of Massachusetts. A blacksmith by trade, Arthur shod horses for the Union Army. 

He left Fort Monroe for Boston on July 6, 1862, showing up in the city three days later. He told the Globe that on reaching Boston, he was cordially received by anti-slavery people. This is corroborated by the abolitionist, teacher, and philanthropist Nathaniel T. Allen., who wrote in his diary on February 20, 1863, that a number of black people, “contrabands,” had come to West Newton to find employment, much to the disgust of certain Irish laborers, and that among them was Arthur Crumpler. Allen said that he befriended Arthur and took him in, allowing him to sleep in his barn and to perform chores. In November, 1863, noted Allen, Arthur cast his first vote, after being challenged on every possible ground the authorities could trump up, owning to the prejudice against him as a Southern black man.