Dr. Benjamin Spock published his famous “Baby and Child Care” in 1946, eventually outselling all other nonfiction books other than the Bible. However, in 1883, 63 years before Spock’s book, America’s first African-American woman medical doctor published her “Book of Medical Discourse,” offering medical advice for women and children. What makes Dr. Crumpler’s success even more remarkable is that she received her medical degree in 1860, one year before the start of the American Civil War. To be black and trying to become a doctor at that time was challenge enough, but to also be a woman breaking into a male bastion like medicine required heroic strength and courage and commitment.
Born in Delaware in 1831, Crumpler was raised by an aunt who was dedicated to caring for sick neighbors and friends. At the age of 21, young Rebecca moved to Charleston, Mass., to work as a nurse for the next eight years. The first formal nursing school wouldn’t open for another 20 years, so she was able to practice nursing without any sort of degree. In 1860, 29-year-old Rebecca Crumpler entered the New England Female Medical College. Upon graduation, she became the first black female doctor in the United States, and the only African-American woman to graduate from that college, which closed in 1873.
She practiced in Boston until the end of the Civil War. Then, in 1866, she moved to Richmond, Va., to help those affected by the devastation of the war. It was here, among a black population of 30,000, that she felt she could learn most about “the diseases of women and children.” Despite enduring horrific racism and sexism, she, along with other brave black doctors, cared for freed slaves who otherwise would have received no medical care.
She returned to Boston, living in a mostly black neighborhood, caring for women and children until her retirement in 1880. She died in 1895. Although no photos of her remain, we can all imagine a face that reflects both the determination and compassion that guided her life.