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We Are Because They Were: Recognizing Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD


By Alexis Griffin, MD


While Black Americans make up about 13% of the population in the United States, only 5% (45,534) of the 918,547 active physicians in the United States identify as Black, and only 2% identify as Black women. Interestingly, there were zero Black physicians in the United States until 1847, when David Jones Peck, MD, became the first Black person to be granted a medical degree. Seventeen years later, three years after the start of the Civil War and one year after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD, became the first Black woman to be granted a medical degree in the U.S. As a Black woman physician, this Black History Month, I reflect on the contributions of Dr. Crumpler and the notion that I am because she was.  

Dr. Crumpler was born in Delaware in 1831 and was raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania. She reportedly gained her inspiration to pursue a career in medicine from her aunt who cared for the ill. From 1852 to 1860, Dr. Crumpler worked as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts. In 1860, when women were 0.5% (300 of 54,543) and Black women were 0% of physicians in the United States, she was accepted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts. She practiced in Boston for one year before moving to Richmond, Virginia, to care for women and children, and moved back to Boston in 1869 to continue practicing medicine. It was in Boston that she eventually published what is believed to be the first medical text written by a Black person: A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts. 

One hundred and fifty-seven years later, I, a black woman physician from Montgomery, Alabama, am practicing medicine in Boston, Massachusetts. I am a physician today because Dr. Crumpler was courageous, determined, and resilient. I am the author of two articles in Obstetrics & Gynecology that discuss racism in medicine and the elimination of health disparities affecting Black women because Dr. Crumpler was an author and trailblazer in 1869. As we celebrate Black History Month, I challenge each of you to reflect on the lives of those who came before you, as we are because they were.