• By Deb Balzer

Black History Month: Honoring Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

February 8, 2022

Each February, Black History Month is recognized to honor the many contributions of Black Americans and their role in U.S. history. Keeping with this year's theme of "Black Health and Wellness," the Mayo Clinic News Network will recognize a pioneer in the field of medical science each week throughout the month.

This week, the Mayo Clinic News Network honors Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler was born in Delaware on Feb. 8, 1831. She went on to become the first Black female physician in the U.S. at the age of 33.

In 1864, she graduated from the New England Female Medical College in Boston as the first and only Black student. Her first husband, Wyatt Lee, died of tuberculosis while she was a medical student.

In 1865, as the civil war ended, Dr. Crumpler married her second husband, Arthur Crumpler, an escaped slave who later became known as Boston's oldest pupil. Together, they moved to Richmond, Virginia. There, Dr. Crumpler worked for the Freedman's Bureau with other Black doctors to offer medical services to formerly enslaved African Americans.

She faced intense racism and sexism working as a physician in the postwar South. Through her difficulties, Dr. Crumpler was resilient and eventually moved back to Boston to practice medicine and treat children, regardless of the parents' ability to pay for care.

Dr. Crumpler's 1883 publication, "Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts," addressed children's and women's health. It was the first medical textbook published by a Black physician.

There are no known photographs of Dr. Crumpler; however, some online articles and books have used an image believed to be that of Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African American licensed nurse in the U.S. alongside articles about Dr. Crumpler.

And for more than 125 years, Dr. Crumpler and her husband were buried in unmarked graves in Hyde Park in Boston. In 2020, that changed, thanks to the advocacy of Friends of the Hyde Park Branch Library. This group raised funds for granite headstones.

On Feb. 8, 2021, the city of Boston honored Dr. Crumpler for her groundbreaking achievements in medicine.

Dr. Nusheen Ameenuddin, a Mayo Clinic pediatrician, offers her thoughts about Dr. Crumpler's accomplishments:

I remember learning about the legacy of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, which was not from a textbook of American history or even in the course of medical school. I learned about Dr. Crumpler's pioneering achievement as the first Black American female physician and a medical text author from social media when my friends and colleagues who are Black shared her accomplishments online.

I keep thinking of the courage and determination it takes to be the first in any area, but especially in medicine, where she faced not only racism, but sexism and the exponential effects of both combined.

We think of extraordinary individuals like her and often expect others to make the same extraordinary leaps without thinking about how we can all contribute to creating a more just and equitable system that more fairly opens the doors to everyone without having to overcome so many additional obstacles.

As much as we celebrate Dr. Crumpler, I hope her story also encourages all of us to create more opportunities for thousands of future Dr. Crumplers out there.

Dr. Ameenuddin is chair of Diversity and Inclusion for Mayo Clinic Health System and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Communications and Media.

Learn more about Dr. Rebecca Crumpler by checking out these resources: