This Day In History: March 1

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On March 1, 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler becomes the first African American woman to earn a medical degree. For much of her career she practiced community medicine in Boston, but in the aftermath of the Civil War she traveled south to treat thousands of formerly enslaved refugees. Crumpler wrote one of the first medical manuals by an African American doctor in the United States—and by a woman.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis in 1831 in Christiana, Delaware. She spent her formative years living in Philadelphia with her aunt, a respected community healer. After moving to Massachusetts and practicing nursing for several years, Rebecca Davis, now Rebecca Lee, applied to the New England Female Medical College in Boston, the first women's medical school in the nation. The college admitted her in 1860, based on her nursing experience and strong recommendations from doctors familiar with her work. She graduated in 1864 as a "Doctress of Medicine."

During her time in Boston, Rebecca Lee provided medical care to the residents of her neighborhood, on the north slope of Beacon Hill. It was Boston's largest Black community, home to Underground Railroad safe houses and antislavery organizing. Rebecca Lee's first husband, Wyatt Lee, died in 1863 from tuberculosis. In 1865, she married Arthur Crumpler, who like Lee had escaped slavery in the American South.

After graduating from medical school, Rebecca Lee Crumpler set out for Richmond, Virginia, to provide care for newly free Black people displaced by the ongoing civil war. She responded to a call for doctors from the Freedman's Bureau, established to aid the masses of newly emancipated people at the end of the Civil War. Crumpler faced discrimination from fellow medical professionals as both a woman and an African American. Nonetheless, as she wrote in her book, she cared for "a very large number of the indigent" in a "population of over 30,000"—people living largely in tent camps without enough food, clothing or proper sanitation. She cared especially for Black women and children, who were otherwise largely denied medical care.

After serving in Richmond, Crumpler returned to Boston. She opened a clinic in her neighborhood where people could seek care "regardless of remuneration." Based on her decades of experience treating women and children, Crumpler wrote a Book of Medical Discourses, published in 1883. Her book urges parents to be vigilant in caring for their children and emphasized the importance of what doctors today consider the "social determinants of health." Crumpler's Book of Medical Discourses was among the first medical guidebooks published by a Black doctor in the United States.

Crumpler died in 1895, at the age of 64, near Boston. Her grave remained unmarked until 2020, when the Hyde Park Historical Society launched a fundraiser for a headstone. It now reads: "The community and the Commonwealth's four medical schools honor Dr. Rebecca Crumpler for her ceaseless courage, pioneering achievements and historic legacy as a physician, author, nurse, missionary and advocate for health equity and social justice."