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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...

Arthur Crumpler probably met Rebecca through his association with Nathaniel Allen. According to Allen’s biographer, Mary Anne Greene, Allen founded the English and Classical School in West Newton, Mass., appropriately known as the Allen School. She noted that Arthur married a woman of his own race who had studied at the Allen School, taken a course in medicine in Boston, and practiced her profession there and in the South.  Although he did not mention Rebecca by name, Arthur Crumpler did tell the Globe that he married shortly after coming to the city. Moreover, Rebecca is known to have married an Arthur Crumpler around the time that she graduated from the NEFMC, which would have been within two years of Arthur’s arrival in Boston. 

In 1898, Arthur Crumpler told the Globe that four years after arriving in the city, he “made a good living taking care of stores in Boston,” an occupation he then held. The city directories of the period reveal that by 1870 the Arthur Crumpler who resided with Rebecca Crumpler was a porter at 122 Tremont Street. One type of porter does routine cleaning, as in a hospital or an office. Thus, “taking care of stores” probably meant that Arthur routinely cleaned stores.     

Unable to read or write, he attended the Wells Night School at his wife’s suggestion, but bad eyesight brought him no success. Seeing her husband’s disappointment, it is very likely that Rebecca was the one who told Arthur that she would do all his reading and writing for him. She  did—right up to the time of her death. Finally, Arthur Crumpler informed the Globe that his wife had passed away “about four years ago,” which was within a year of the actual date of Rebecca Crumpler’s death.

Dr. Crumpler had moved to Hyde Park and stopped practicing medicine by 1880. The U.S. federal census record that year listed her occupation as “keeping house.” In 1883 she published “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” a valuable volume of medical advice regarding women and children and one of the first medical publications authored by an African American. She dedicated the book to “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race,” and she offered it primarily to educate women on the various ways of preventing deadly diseases.

The 145-page volume covered a variety of topics, including: washing and dressing the newborn, breastfeeding, proper and improper diet, the causes and prevention of cholera in infants, the cure for hemorrhoids, the treatment of diphtheria, the management of measles, and the treatment of burns and scalds.

In her book, Dr. Crumpler also offered some priceless matrimonial advice to single young women. “It is best for a young woman to accept a suitor who is respectable, vigorous, industrious, but a few years her senior, if not equal age,” she noted.

The way to stay happily married, she advised, “is to continue in the careful routine of the courting days, till it becomes well understood between the two.”

Described in her early 60s as “tall and straight, with light brown skin and gray hair,” Dr. Crumpler was a “very pleasant and intellectual woman, and an indefatigable church worker.” She and her husband were members of Twelfth Baptist Church on Phillips St. He served on its board of trustees.

On July 22, 1894, The Boston Globe wrote, “Dr. Rebecca Crumpler is the one woman who, as a physician, made an enviable place for herself in the ranks of the medical fraternity.”

While still a resident of Hyde Park, she died in Fairview, Mass. on March 9, 1895.