Women’s History Trivia: First Female African American Physician

The New England Female Medical College (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

By: Alyssa Bradley

Trivia Question: Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African-American woman to become a _______ (occupation) in the United States. 

Answer: Physician

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler is recognized for becoming the first African-American woman physician in the United States. As a young girl, she grew up in a house with her aunt who took care of the ill. Rebecca was always considered a “special student” and was allowed to attend many prestigious private schools because of her intellect.

Later in life, she pursued her shared family passion for medicine.  During 1860, Crumpler applied and was accepted into the New England Female Medical College. This institution was founded in 1848 and had only started accepting its first female student, a class of 12, in 1850. The women at this college faced ridicule from male physicians who derided the institution. They complained that women “lacked the physical strength to practice medicine”. Others thought that women were incapable of understanding a medical curriculum and that the topics taught were inappropriate for their “sensitive and delicate nature”.

In 1860, there were only 300 women out of 54,543 physicians in the United States–and none of them were African American. Despite the discouraging odds, in 1864 Crumpler became her school’s only African-American graduate.

After completing her schooling, Crumpler relocated to Richmond, Virginia where she found her calling. She discovered “the proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” It was here she worked under the Freedman’s Bureau, an agency dedicated to helping newly freed African American slaves.

Throughout the rest of her practice, Rebecca faced daily issues of racism and sexism from her colleagues, pharmacists, and many others. Rebecca Lee Crumpler continued to practice medicine and even wrote a book called A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts. She passed in 1895. Crumpler achieved many things in the name of gender and women’s equity and paved the way for many of those who continue to defy adversity.