Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Rebecca Lee Crumpler


DJ Name: Crumpin’ Crumpler

Fun fact! When Dr. Dre said “I need a doctor” in 2011, they were actually referring to DJ Dr. Crumpin’ Crumpler. That’s right, Rebecca Lee Crumpler literally brought Dr. Dre back to life because she was THAT good of a doctor. OK, but for real, Rebecca Lee Crumpler deserves to be referenced in all songs. Not so fun of a fact! She can’t be on the album covers because no known images of Becky with the BeatsTM exist.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman in America to earn a medical degree, and she used that degree for good by working for the Freedmen’s Bureau and providing medical care for freed slaves. Undeterred by racism and sexism, Rebecca reached milestone after milestone to get into and graduate from medical school, becoming a practicing physician and even publishing a book on medicine. When she hit the books to study where exactly a femur is located, she shuffled up her favorite playlist and shook her pelvis to the beat:

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis in Christiana, Delaware, on February 8, 1831 to Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber. She was mostly raised in Pennsylvania, though, by an aunt who took care of people in the community. Seeing her aunt as the town’s de facto doctor left an impression on baby Becca, and she was inspired to also follow a path that would allow her to care for sick people. Rebecca recalled, “Having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to be in a position to relieve the sufferings of others.” 

So she nursed the desire to become a nurse for a while and then took the first step in that journey in the early 1850s when she moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, and began working as a nurse. While she was living in Charlestown, she met Wyatt Lee, who was from Virginia and was formerly enslaved. She and Wyatt wed in 1852, and they often took care of Wyatt’s son, Albert, from a previous marriage. A year into their marriage, Albert passed away when he was just seven years old. His death prodded Rebecca to double down on her nursing studies and help prevent future tragedies such as this one from happening. After further honing her nursing chops, she applied and was accepted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860. The school was the first in the country to train women medical doctors, and at the time, she was the only Black woman there. Out of the 54,543 physicians in America in 1860, only 300 were women. 

As two people who majored in history, we can comfortably say that med school seems impossible. But med school was even more impossible for Rebecca, because she was a Black woman trying to become a doc in 1860. Men knocked women docs, saying they were too delicate and not intelligent enough to wield a scalpel and stitch wounds. Rude. And most medical schools barred Black students from entry, regardless of gender. The New England Female Medical College played into these stereotypes, too. It initially only taught women to become midwives, because many saw it as improper for men to assist during childbirth. Man up, men, and help ease those babies out of the womb! But anyway, by the time that Rebecca entered NEFMC, the curriculum had expanded to include a wider and more ~complete~ medical education. The doctors-to-be learned the classics like medical theories, chemistry, physiology and hygiene, but they also read the classics like Pride and Prejudice (allegedly) and even wrote some theses on their lit literary thoughts. After seventeen weeks of courses, they moved on to hand scalpels and gauze and worked with established physicians for two years in the hopes that they’d get to scrub in (whoops, that’s 21st century speak). But you get the picture: two years as an apprentice for a physician to practice what was preached to them in the classroom. While still in med school, Rebecca suffered a second big loss: her hubby, Wyatt, passed away in 1863 from tuberculosis. 

This phuture physician persisted and DJ Crumpin’ Crumpler became Dr. DJ Crumpin’ Crumpler in 1864, making her the very first Black female doctor, AKA a “doctress of medicine.” Fancy. Shortly thereafter she remarried to a man named Arthur Crumpler. He is actually the one who bestowed upon Rebecca the nickname of DJ Crumpin’ Crumpler, which we learned from reading very important primary sources because we are all about the #facts #only here at Historic Shuffle. Anyways, she started out practicing in Boston, primarily caring for poor Black women and children. But at the end of the Civil War, in 1865, she felt drawn to practice the meds in Richmond, Virginia, which she saw as a “proper field for real missionary work.” Once settled in the Commonwealth, Rebecca collabed with The United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands AKA the Freedmen’s Bureau and other groups like it to provide medical attention to freed Southern Black people. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped more than 4,000,000 formerly enslaved individuals transition to a life of freedom. Many of the patients who Rebecca treated were very poor and wouldn’t have been able to afford or access medical care without Rebecca’s help. White doctors discriminated against Black patients, and since this racism made it difficult for them to seek help, more Black people began to pursue careers in medicine. 

Dr. Crumpler moved back to Boston in the late 1860s where she continued to practice medicine in her neighborhood (and sometimes in her home) of Beacon Hill, which was a predominantly Black community. She didn’t worry so much if the family seeking medical help couldn’t pay, but was more so dedicated to making sure that everybody who needed medical treatment received it from her. Eventually, Rebecca published her own book titled, A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts, which featured pages upon pages of advice from her medical experiences on how to treat illnesses in infants, young children and women of a childbearing age. It’s dedicated to, “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race” because, as she said, “My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.” A few years later, she passed away on March 9, 1895. Rebecca was buried in an unmarked grave in Fairview Cemetery in Boston next to her late husband, Arthur. And, to this day, no known images of Rebecca have been confirmed. 

Over a century after her death, the Friends of Hyde Park Library launched a fundraiser to give Rebecca a proper tombstone, and replace the recently confirmed unmarked one. On February 8, 2021 (AKA her birthday AKA just a few weeks ago!), a new tombstone was given to her (and her hubby Arthur!) that reads, “The first black woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S.” (Fun fact! You can watch some of the ceremony here.).Throughout her life, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler broke down barriers in the medical field day after day despite racist and sexist obstacles, and she did so with a pioneering conviction that opened the door for many to follow in her footsteps.

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