Rebecca Lee Crumpler: Providing Medical Care to Freedmen

Although very few women physicians served during the American Civil War, one African American woman, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, worked as part of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in Richmond, Virginia after the war providing medical care to Black women, men, and children. She was the first Black woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Little is known about Crumpler’s life but glimpses are revealed in her book, A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts, published in 1883.

Crumpler was born in 1831 in Christiana, Delaware to Absolum and Matilda Davis. She was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania who cared for her sick neighbors and whose influence encouraged Crumpler to become a physician. “Having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought,” she writes, “I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to be in a position to relieve the sufferings of others.”[1]

Crumpler spent eight years as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts working with a number of different physicians before deciding to pursue a medical education. She attended The New England Female Medical College as their only Black student and received her medical degree in 1864. Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston for a few years, “but desiring a large scope for general information, I travelled toward the British Dominion. On my return, after the close of the Confederate War, my mind centered upon Richmond, the capital city of Virginia, as the proper field for real missionary work, and one that would provide ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.”[2]

By 1867, she had arrived in Richmond and began working with the Freedmen’s Bureau tending to the medical needs of the formerly enslaved and free Black population. She “had access each day to a very large number of indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored.”[3] Crumpler eventually returned to Boston and continued her medical practice in that city, specializing in the ailments of women and children. She had one daughter, Lizzie Sinclair, with her husband Arthur.[4] By 1880, she had stopped practicing medicine, and 15 years later, died at the age of 64.

Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler challenged the proscribed notions and expectations for Black women in 19th century America to become the first African American female medical doctor in the United States. She served after the end of the war, providing much needed medical care to the Black population of Richmond.

Rebecca Lee is listed as a student at The New England Female Medical College in their Thirteenth Announcement of The New England Female Medical College, Term 1860-61.


[1] Crumpler, Rebecca, A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts, Boston: Cashman, Keating & Co., 1883, 1-2.

[2] Crumpler, 2.

[3] Crumpler, 2.

[4] Massachusetts, U.S. Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988.

New England Female Medical College Announcement, 1860-61, Courtesy Boston University
New England Female Medical College Announcement, 1860-61, Courtesy Boston University
Title page from A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts, published in 1883, Courtesy National Library of Medicine