One of the joys of being a historical romance writer is not only weaving stories of two people finding their way to love, but conducting the research as well. My go-to book for that is, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women of the 19th Century, edited by historian Dorothy A. Sterling. In it are excerpts from diaries, letters, and documented accounts of black women accomplishing everything from founding antislavery societies in 18th century New England, to training as doctors at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania after the Civil War. In researching my second novel Vivid, it was Sterling’s book that introduced me to the remarkable Rebecca Lee, America’s first African-American female doctor.
Lee, born Rebecca Davis in Delaware in 1831, grew up in Philadelphia with an aunt who cared for the sick. It was watching her aunt that set in motion Rebecca’s desire to do the same. As a child, she attended a prestigious private school as a “special student”, then in 1852, moved to Charlestown Massachusetts and married Wyatt Lee. For the next eight years, she worked as a nurse under the supervision of various local doctors, but she had no formal nurses training. The first school for nurses didn’t open until 1873. In 1860, armed with letters of recommendation from the doctors she’d worked for, Rebecca applied to the Boston based, New England Female Medical College, and was admitted. This is at a time when male physicians claimed women had neither the mental capacity nor the stamina to practice medicine.
Four years later, Rebecca became this country’s first African American female MD; fifteen years after Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell broke the ceiling for white American women in 1849. To give you a sense of how rare Rebecca was, in 1860, the year she was admitted to medical school, there were a little over fifty-four thousand physicians in the U.S., only three hundred were women, none of them African American. There were 3 million black people enslaved in the south, however.
Her first husband Wyatt died in 1863, After her graduation, she married Arthur Crumpler. Her work as a physician for women and children took her from Boston, where she set up her first practice, to Richmond Virginia. She and Arthur moved there in 1865, right after the Civil War to assist other black physicians in treating freed slaves. She described them later as “a very large number of the indigent and others of different classes in a population of over 30,000 colored.” Being black doctors, she and her male colleagues had to push back against the racism they encountered. As a female, she had to fight sexism as well.
Four years later, the Crumplers returned to Boston. They moved into the African American section of Beacon Hill, and she reopened her practice. In 1869, they moved again, this time to Hyde Park New York. Most likely, we’d know even less about Dr. Lee-Crumpler were it not for another first tied to her name. While living in Hyde Park, she authored, A Book of Medical Discourses. Published in 1883 by Cashman, Keating and Co. of Boston, the book is based on the notes and journal entries she kept during her years of active practice. It’s dedicated to: mothers, nurses and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race. This is believed to be the first medical text by an African American author. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler died March 9, 1895, in Hyde Park New York.
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