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Rebecca Lee Crumpler: America’s First Female African American Doctor

Updated: Feb 6

When the letters M.D. were added to Rebecca Lee’s name in 1864, some people snarkily mused that it stood for “mule driver.” In reality, it was recognition that Rebecca had fought racism and sexism to become the country’s first female African American medical doctor.

Born in 1831 to Absolum Davis, a freeman, and Matilda Webber, Rebecca was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania. Her aunt’s work in caring for the sick greatly influenced Rebecca. At the age of twenty-one, she moved to Massachusetts and married Wyatt Lee. She worked for eight years as a nurse, impressing the doctors she worked with to such an extent that they recommended her for the New England Female Medical College—one of the few colleges in the U.S. that accepted women.

There was widespread opposition to admitting women into medical schools, with many male doctors arguing that women lacked the physical and mental strength to be doctors and that certain topics were inappropriate for their sensitive and delicate nature. As the first Black woman to attend medical school, Rebecca knew that she had to be better and work harder than anyone around her. She undoubtedly faced prejudice from her professors and classmates. While men could take a few college courses and call themselves a doctor, Rebecca Lee attended thirty hours of courses for seventeen weeks, followed by two years of apprenticeships under physician supervision. In 1863, Wyatt Lee died of tuberculosis. Widowed and financially insecure, Rebecca’s final year of schooling was funded with a scholarship from Benjamin Wade, an active abolitionist. In 1864, she became the medical college’s only Black graduate (the college closed in 1873).

For perspective, out of the 54,543 physicians in the country, only 300 were women, and only one of those women – Rebecca Lee – was Black. Even in the 1920s, there were only 65 Black women doctors in the U.S.

Upon graduation, Rebecca established a practice in Boston for poor women and children. A year later, she married Arthur Crumpler, who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War after escaping slavery. As the war had just ended, the couple relocated to Richmond, Virginia where Lee-Crumpler could provide health care to the formerly enslaved. Racism and sexism followed her to Richmond, where male doctors ridiculed her and pharmacists balked at filling her prescriptions.

In 1869, Lee-Crumpler returned to her practice in Boston’s Beacon Hill, which at the time was

a predominantly Black neighborhood. She continued to treat patients for over a decade. In what may have been the start of her retirement, Rebecca wrote “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” which was published in 1883. Part I of the book focused on the treatment of infants to age 5 and Part II focused on treatments of ailments among women and youth. It may be the first medical text by any Black author in the U.S. The book is particularly notable because it’s believed that Rebecca’s only child did not survive beyond infancy.

Rebecca Lee-Crumpler died in 1895, having treated thousands of poor who would have otherwise had no access to health care. In the process, she relied on intelligence, compassion, and endless resilience to overcome racism and sexism, clearing a path when few wanted to see her succeed. Today, less than 3% of U.S. doctors are Black women. As they too break down barriers, they have Rebecca to look to as a source of inspiration and determination.

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