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The U.S.’s First Black Female Physician Cared for Patients from Cradle to Grave

Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman in the U.S. to receive an M.D., earned while the Civil War raged, and the first Black person in the country to write a medical book, a popular guide with a preventive approach

A pink and dark purple silhouette of a woman

Paula Mangin

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, born in 1831, was the first African American female medical doctor in the U.S. and is considered the first Black person to publish a medical book. In it, Crumpler lays out best practices for good health, with a focus on women and children. She writes that she was inspired by her aunt, a community healer and midwife, who raised her in Pennsylvania.

In 1864, during the Civil War, Crumpler graduated from the New England Female Medical College, the world’s first medical school for women and the founding institution of what is now the Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.

The following year, in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, she traveled to Virginia to treat refugees. Many women and children, suddenly freed from bondage, were dying. She worked to dispel the myth that recently freed slaves were spreading disease, rightly pointing instead to poor living conditions.

There are no known photographs of Rebecca Crumpler, but a Boston newspaper article describes her in her 60s as “tall and straight, with light brown skin and gray hair”. Rebecca Crumpler was ahead of her time, promoting preventive medicine, and she paved the way for women of color in the field of public health.


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Lost Women of Science is produced for the ear. Where possible, we recommend listening to the audio for the most accurate representation of what was said.


Joan Reede: I was not aware that the first Black female physician in the United States was from here. It's this understanding that people have braved the trail. That is so important and so powerful. 

Katie Hafner: I'm Katie Hafner, and this is Lost Women of Science. 

It was three years ago that I first heard about Dr. Rebecca Crumpler. We were in COVID lockdown, Lost Women of Science was brand new, and I was standing in my kitchen one day making lunch and stealing glances at my husband's Zoom meeting.

He's a doctor and his meetings are often pretty interesting. When up popped a slide about someone named Rebecca Crumpler. The slide was part of a presentation being given by Dr. Joan Reede, Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership at Harvard Medical School, whose voice you heard just now. I resolved then and there to celebrate Rebecca Crumpler at some point in Lost Women of Science.

There's a lot to admire in Rebecca Crumpler. Not only was she the first Black female physician in the U.S., but she’s also considered the first Black person to publish a medical book. But what really caught my eye is what she did just after finishing medical school in 1864. She left the relative safety of Boston and headed south to Virginia, straight into the thick of devastation at the end of the Civil War.

What she saw there changed her. It made her an early advocate of disease prevention and a pioneer in the field of public health. 

Producer Dominique Janee takes us to Boston. 

Shawn Quigley and Dominique Janee: Hi, good morning. Are you Shawn? Yes. Hi I'm Dominique. Sorry I'm a few minutes late. That's okay. Nice to meet you.

Dominique Janee: I'd been waiting at the base of Beacon Hill to get a sense of how this neighborhood, where Dr. Rebecca Crumpler lived, shaped her. Shawn was just the person for the job.

Shawn Quigley: I'm Shawn Quigley. I'm a National Park Ranger, uh, with the National Parks of Boston.

Dominique Janee: And he specializes in Boston's Black Heritage Trail, so I filled him in.

Shawn Quigley and Dominique Janee: So, we're doing an episode on Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

She was the first Black woman doctor in the U.S., so we just wanted to learn a little bit about the neighborhood that she lived in. Yeah, sure. Okay, let's go.

Dominique Janee: We cross Beacon Street to start the climb to the top.

To say that Beacon Hill is the poshest part of Boston is not entirely true. There are two sides to this hill. This sunny side facing Boston Common--these grand old mansions were built for Boston's rich and powerful families. But the far side of Beacon Hill, where we're heading--that northern slope was built for the working class.

Dominique Janee: We make our way to the crest of the hill and start our trek down the north slope.

Shawn Quigley: The back side of Beacon Hill is not as pleasant a place to be as the front side facing the Boston Common.

Dominique Janee: This back side of the hill, the northern slope, it was once Boston's largest African American neighborhood. 

Back in the mid 1800s, Black Bostonians made up just about 1.5% of Boston's total population, but 70% of Black Bostonians lived here, in this neighborhood of about 2,200 people living in a mix of small wooden houses and the narrow brick row houses we see today. It was a tightly packed, close knit neighborhood, and it's still well preserved.

Shawn Quigley: You see these old brownstones, right, these gas lamps, wrought iron around trees, those metal boot scrapers that give you a physical window into what Rebecca Crumpler would have seen.

Dominique Janee: We take a left onto a narrow dead end side street. 

Shawn Quigley: And where we are heading is the African Meeting House which really serves as the center of this 19th century free Black community here in Boston.

Dominique Janee: And there it is. The African Meeting House. It's an unadorned solid brick three story structure, about as deep as it is wide and elegant in its simplicity. Built in 1806, it's considered the oldest still standing African American church in the United States. 

Boston in the mid 1800s was a hotbed of anti-slavery activism. This neighborhood, riddled with underground railroad safe houses and hidden alleyways for a quick escape, was a refuge for those fleeing bondage. 

And right in the middle of it, this: The African Meeting House. 

Back in the mid-19th century, fiery speakers took to the pulpit, denouncing slavery.

Shawn Quigley: Frederick Douglass spoke in this space on multiple occasions. William Lloyd Garrison frequented the building. 

Dominique Janee: This neighborhood was so tight-knit that it's likely Rebecca Crumpler crossed paths with and got to know at least some of these abolitionist luminaries. After all, at one point, it seems she lived right here at #2 Smith Court, adjacent to the African Meeting House. 

But she had come a long way. She didn't start off in Boston. 

Her early childhood is shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that, back in 1831, Rebecca Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis, the daughter of Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber in Christiana, Delaware. 

While little is known of her early years, here is the sum total of what we do know. We know that as a child, she was sent to Pennsylvania. There, she was raised by a beloved and skilled aunt who was respected in her community.

Dr. Melody McCloud: Her time with her aunt apparently had a major impact on Rebecca. 

Dominique Janee: That's Melody McCloud, an author and physician who has been working to get Dr. Rebecca Crumpler the credit she deserves.

Dr. Melody McCloud: People in the community came to her aunt for care, for medical advice, her aunt was a caregiver to people in the community. 

Dominique Janee: For millennia, women like her aunt have filled the role of neighborhood healers and midwives.  Rebecca Crumpler fondly recalled going along with her aunt as she made her rounds, watching as she attended to the needs of her neighbors. ​

Dr. Melody McCloud: And I guess Rebecca was very impressed by that.

Dominique Janee: Rebecca Crumpler says her aunt inspired her. She later wrote, "...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 relieve the sufferings of others."

By age 21, Rebecca Davis moved to Boston and brought with her the skills she learned at her aunt's knee.

She found a job as a nurse across the water in Charlestown -- then a separate city, but now a Boston neighborhood--and in April of that year, 1852, she married Wyatt Lee, who was formerly enslaved. 

Rebecca, now Rebecca Lee, did not have a nursing degree. This was the 1850s, and even though Rebecca was a nurse, she wasn't credentialed in the way we think of things today.

It would be another 20 years before formal nursing schools started up. Until the advent of modern medicine, babies were born at home. Midwives and folk healers like her aunt were sought out for their skills, passed from generation to generation. 

Dr. Melody McCloud: So she worked as a nurse for about eight years in the Massachusetts area, and she did such a great job that doctors with whom she worked recommended that she apply to medical school, and so she did that.

Dominique Janee: Her application was accepted. And abolitionists, both Black and white helped finance her schooling. The New England Female Medical College was the founding institution of Boston University Medical School.

Its building, now long-gone, once stood right in the middle of the present day BU Medical School campus.

When Rebecca Lee started classes in 1859, there were approximately 55,000 doctors in the United States. Of those, only 300 were women, and all of those women were white. 

Rebecca's first term of classes ended in 1860, just a year before the start of the Civil War, a war that would later have a profound impact on her life and her work.

Victoria Gall with the Hyde Park Historical Society, has combed through dozens of archives, newspaper clippings and census records to piece together Rebecca Lee Crumpler's life. Gall points out that early female doctors were often relegated to take on the cases male doctors didn't want.

Victoria Gall: The focus of the New England Female Medical school was women and children, because at the time, men didn't feel comfortable with maternity and childcare. They thought it was a woman's job. 

Dominique Janee: Around the time she started her doctoral training, she and Wyatt moved to the north slope of Beacon Hill, closer to the medical school.

She was more than halfway through her training when tragedy struck.

Tuberculosis -- or “consumption” as it was known back in the mid 1800s -- was often a death sentence. More people were killed in Boston by tuberculosis than by any other disease. No one knew back then what exactly caused it, but it was highly contagious, and crowded living conditions, like the tight neighborhood where Rebecca and Wyatt were living, just fueled the spread.

And Rebecca's husband – Wyatt – he was bedridden with a racking cough. 

Victoria Gall: She took a year off to be with and to care for Wyatt, who died of tuberculosis in 1863.

Dominique Janee: His death came just one day shy of their 11th wedding anniversary. The address on Wyatt's death certificate places him at #2 Smith Court on Beacon Hill, a brick building adjacent to the storied African Meeting House on that narrow dead end street. 

Death was part of life. People routinely died in their own homes. And while we can't know for sure, it's likely that #2 Smith Court, hard up against the African Meeting House, was the final home Rebecca shared with Wyatt. 

After Wyatt's funeral, Rebecca Lee, now widowed, poured herself into her medical school training. She was now focused on getting it done. And in 1864, a little less than a year after Wyatt's death, Dr. Rebecca Lee graduated. Her 1864 diploma from the New England Female Medical College declares her not a doctor, but a "Doctress of Medicine". 

Victoria Gall: She had no idea of her significance. 

Dominique Janee: That again is Victoria Gall.

Victoria Gall: I'm not even sure she knew she was the first Black female doctor.  

Dominique Janee: And until recently, most people didn't know. Instead of Rebecca Crumpler of Boston, Rebecca Cole of Philadelphia was wrongly thought to have been the first Black woman in the United States to earn an MD. 

Why were the two Rebecca's mixed up for so long? No one knows for sure, but it is a fact. Rebecca Crumpler became an MD in 1864. That's a full three years before Rebecca Cole's 1867 graduation.

But during this time leading up to Rebecca Crumpler's graduation, while the Civil War was raging and she was caring for her dying husband, her future husband, Arthur Crumpler, was escaping the plantation in Virginia where he'd been kept as a slave.

He ended up at a Union Army base. There, he was considered "contraband" and was given a job.

Victoria Gall: Arthur was a skilled blacksmith, so he worked there for a while. But he wanted to leave and although they promised him a certain amount of money, he couldn't read what he was signing and he had to just put his X by his name. He got less money than the government was going to give him and that really turned his mind: I gotta learn to read and write. 

Dominique Janee: Arthur Crumpler made his way to Massachusetts. He knew Boston was a refuge for escaped slaves, and soon found work as a blacksmith. 

By the time the widowed Rebecca Lee was finishing up her medical school studies, Arthur Crumpler had found work and lodging at the Allen School in Newton, bordering Boston. It was a progressive school with co-educational and racially integrated classrooms. 

Victoria Gall says the school made an impression on Arthur Crumpler. 

Victoria Gall:  He actually registered to vote at that period of time, and he also signed up for the draft.

Dominique Janee: Some speculate Rebecca and Arthur met through the Allen School. She was a special student there, but not until 1875, long after they met. Historian Victoria Gall says it's more likely the two met in church. 

What we do know from Rebecca's writing is that she traveled north to St. John, New Brunswick in Canada, to hold clinics in a community made up of self-emancipated slaves who, fearing recapture under the Fugitive Slave Act, had fled the U.S. for Canada and settled there. 

And there, in the spring of 1865, when Rebecca was 34 years old, Rebecca Lee and Arthur Crumpler were married. 

So now she's Dr. Rebecca Crumpler. 

Victoria Gall:  She did try to work with him on reading and writing.

Dominique Janee: Enslaved from birth, Arthur Crumpler was never taught to read and write. Late in life, he told a reporter that he and his wife would sit down and pore over the daily newspapers and the Bible. And he did, later in life, learn to read. 

But it was this first year of their marriage that brought big changes for the Crumplers and for their country. 

The spring of 1865 also marked the bloody end of the U.S. Civil War. 750,000 soldiers died in that war, according to recently revised estimates, and that's not including the tens of thousands of civilian casualties and the untold numbers of the injured. 

The Freedmen's Bureau, in place to help Black Americans after the Civil War, put out a call for medical personnel. Rebecca Crumpler initially viewed heading south as a way to expand her clinical skills, sort of an open-air laboratory, a place to study family health. She wrote it would be, quote, "a proper field... that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children." 

So, just one year into married life she packed her bags and, with an introductory letter from their minister, headed south to Richmond, Virginia. 

As for Arthur, his escape from a Virginia plantation was still fresh, so it appears he didn't go with her. 

It was a long journey down to Virginia, and what Dr. Rebecca Crumpler witnessed when she got there would change her views, and the course of her life. 

We'll be right back. 

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Jim Downs: When Rebecca Crumpler arrives in Virginia, she's arriving in a place that has been burnt to the ground by the Union Army. 

Dominique Janee: That's historian Jim Downs, author of the book "Sick from Freedom". He says the government, the north, didn't anticipate so many people fleeing plantations.

Jim Downs: How did formerly enslaved people survive hours after they fled from chattel slavery? Where did they find food? Where did they find shelter? 

Dominique Janee: They ran, often barefoot, through woodlands and swamps to the protection of Union Army encampments.

Jim Downs:  The military argues that they don't have enough supplies in order to help their soldiers, let alone this unexpected population of people who arrive on the lines.

Dominique Janee: And the welcome from the Union camp commanders? It was far from warm.

Jim Downs:  They initially saw them all as a nuisance. And then they eventually developed policies in order to employ the men. 

Dominique Janee: But just the men. Women and children? They're on their own, left destitute and with nowhere to go. Whole families pitch tattered tents in the shadow of the Union encampments. 

Jim Downs: There are freed women and children who are begging Army officials to draw rations, and they're very lucky if they could get any kind of scrap of garments that the Army didn't need. They're taking abandoned tents in the ashes of the battlefield where people are trying to eke out a livelihood. 

Dominique Janee: This is not the Boston Dr. Rebecca Crumpler left behind. Here in Richmond, Virginia, she sees drinking water tainted by the bodies of corpses and cooking fires next to open sewers.

Jim Downs: What she's really faced with are high rates of malnutrition, starvation, the fact that people don't have shoes.

Dominique Janee: More soldiers were killed by disease during the Civil War than on the battlefield, and diseases surged after the war too. In these crowded encampments, outbreaks of dysentery, typhoid fever, and smallpox were rampant. Just how many recently freed slaves died in the aftermath of the Civil War is hard to say.

No one kept an accurate count. Downs puts the figure at tens of thousands. 

Rebecca Crumpler threw herself into her work with the Freedmen's Bureau, rushing from patient to patient, tending to the freed slaves that many of the white doctors refused to touch. 

For the injured, it must have been a relief to have her there. But for her fellow doctors, almost all of them white, it was a different story. 

Dr. Melody McCloud: She really caught hell while she was there. 

Dominique Janee: That again is physician and author, Melody McCloud, who says Rebecca Crumpler endured all sorts of indignities.

Dr. Melody McCloud:  Some people said that the MD behind her name stands not for medical doctor, but for mule driver, that's, that's pretty cold. And also pharmacists at the time refused to honor her prescriptions that she would write for her patients, and some hospitals did not permit her to admit patients when they needed care. 

Dominique Janee: Still, Dr. Rebecca Crumpler stayed the course, leaning no doubt into her medical training to keep a calm demeanor, reminding herself how much good she was doing and how much she was learning, just by being there. After all, she wrote, she had, quote:

"...access each day to a very large number of the a population over 30-thousand..." 

Jim Downs:  When a number of different outbreaks explode, physicians don't understand what caused them. 

Dominique Janee: This was before doctors knew much about germ theory of disease. It was not uncommon for a doctor to finish an autopsy on a corpse and then go straight to the bedside of a woman and deliver a baby, without washing their hands. The infected woman would then die, the doctors attributing the death to anyone but themselves. Mostly they blamed the victim. 

They knew enough, though, to isolate the infected, which was almost impossible in these encampments. And as they set up Freedmen Bureau hospitals, they understood this much. 

Jim Downs: Keeping hospitals clean, keeping blankets clean, keeping fresh food, fresh clothing, could help alleviate sickness. It was about basic sanitary measures. 

Dominique Janee: And that level of hygiene was labor intensive, says Downs, opening a chance for a refugee mother to get a hospital job considered women's work. 

Jim Downs: Laundresses, washerwomen, cooks, any number of things. So within the hospital, Rebecca Crumpler could offer women and Children a sort of safe haven, to sort of hide out almost, to try to get better. 

Dominique Janee: After two or maybe three years of treating these refugees in Virginia, Rebecca Crumpler headed home to Boston. She had seen in graphic detail what happens when basic needs -- food, clothing, shelter, and sanitation -- are not met. 

She was in her late thirties by the time she set out on her long trip home. 

Historian Victoria Gall says Rebecca Crumpler had plenty of time to reflect on the misery she had just witnessed. 

Victoria Gall: She took notes and she remembered what she saw, and she was deciding something needs to be done.

Dominique Janee: She brings these notes back to Boston and then builds on them. She and Arthur, who in Rebecca's absence had been working as a porter in Boston, a kind of building superintendent, settled back into a brick row house on Beacon Hill at 67 Joy Street,  right around the corner from the African Meeting House. 

There, out of their home, she opened what was in essence an early free clinic. She wrote, “I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, receiving children in the house for treatment, regardless of remuneration.”

It was 1869 and tuberculosis still had its grip on Boston, ravaging entire families, rich and poor alike. As with other diseases Dr. Crumpler had seen, little was understood about tuberculosis. One article that year blamed “damp soil” as the cause. But tuberculosis is highly contagious and tight living quarters, like those in the Crumpler's bustling Beacon Hill neighborhood, just exacerbated the spread of it. 

And here she was,  on the north slope of Beacon Hill, just a bit uphill from the rough and tumble waterfront, teeming with activity.  Along the docks at the water's edge, tightly packed tenements shared space with the rat infested wharves, raw sewage dumped into the waterway.  It was a perfect place for disease to spread.

Rebecca Crumpler had already witnessed the toll that poor living conditions like this had taken on Civil War refugees. Now, with fresh eyes, she saw an echo of all of that here. She fretted over the death reports writing, "I do not fail to notice the various published records of the condition of the health of Boston and vicinity".

The gravity of the situation took on a new urgency. Dr. Rebecca Crumpler was pregnant.

So, just one year after Rebecca Crumpler's return to Boston, and now, heavy with child, in 1870, her husband, Arthur Crumpler, bought land out in the countryside, a buildable plot for a family home in Hyde Park, about 10 miles from the squalor of the city. There was no house there yet, so they stayed on Beacon Hill, moving a couple blocks west from 67 Joy Street to 20 Garden Street. 

It was there, at 20 Garden Street, that in December of 1870, a baby daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler, was born. 

At the time of Lizzie's birth, infant mortality was sky high . One in five newborns did not survive to see their fifth birthday. That appears to have been the case with Lizzie. There is not a trace of her to be found in the public record beyond her birth registration, and no sign of her in the census data or her parents' public records as they, somehow, got on with their lives.

The couple spent the next several years banking away savings. He continuing to work as a porter, and she seeing patients mostly at their Beacon Hill home. All along the way, she was taking notes based on her keen observations, notes that would eventually be turned into a book. By 1878, they had enough money to add to that plot of land Arthur Crumpler bought out in the countryside.

Here's historian Victoria Gall. 

Victoria Gall: So his original piece of land was not right on the water, so he did buy more land right on the water. 

Dominique Janee: This small parcel sitting on the fertile floodplain along a brook, was perfect for a medicinal garden. On the adjacent original lot, Rebecca and Arthur Crumpler then built a modest home, and by 1880, they were living there, the sights and smells of the city replaced by a view of their garden and plenty of fresh air.

Rebecca Crumpler, now 50 years old, had been tending to patients for nearly three decades. She could finally focus on assembling her recollections and getting it all down on paper. 

Her book did get published, in 1883. It's titled "A Book of Medical Discourses".

It's dedicated to “...mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” And the focus? Women and children's health. It's a slim 145 pages, and is considered by some an early Doctor Spock or a "What to Expect When You're Expecting". 

Dr. Melody McCloud: Her focus was on prevention. 

Dominique Janee: That's Dr. Melody McLeod again. 

Dr. Melody McCloud: She says that, “ chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody's mind the possibility of prevention.”

Dominique Janee: Preventing illness by providing the basics instead of just treating symptoms after the fact. 

It's not a daunting book full of medical jargon. It appeals to a wide audience. In her introduction, she promises to use, quote, " few technical terms as possible." 

There's practical advice on how to bathe a newborn, the importance of fresh air to mitigate illness, and likely based on her own experience, she offers observations like this:

Dr. Melody McCloud: “A cheerful home, with a small tract of land in the country with wholesome food and water, is worth more to preserve health and life than a house in a crowded city with luxuries and 20 rooms.” 

Dominique Janee: And it's full of little nuggets such as: 

"No... preparations containing opium should ever be given to an infant for the purpose of ...making it sleep." 

And she reassures mothers who fret over a crying baby: 

"Children cry for develops the lungs and relieves the air-tubes of...phlegm."

She comes down pretty hard, though, and alcohol is a common cure-all. 

Here's Dr. Rebecca Crumpler's advice for menstrual cramps: "It is a great mistake to administer brandy, gin or any alcohol to girls for relief of pain... it's better to use hot water compresses." 

And she offers this practical advice for a growing family.

Dr. Melody McCloud: “I would suggest that an extra 10 cents be deposited in safekeeping each day, as a surety for a baby's comforts for the first six months.” 

Dominique Janee: The book has a whole section on the importance of breastfeeding. Here she admonishes women of means who struggle to breastfeed. She writes: "A lady of wealth may get discouraged and give her babe to the care of another, whose babe may in consequence have to be put in some charity-house. Her babe may thrive and live; while that of her wet-nurse may soon pine away and die.” 

For the rest of her life, Dr. Rebecca Crumpler lived in the home she built with Arthur along that winding brook out in the countryside. 

She continued practicing medicine there and tending her garden, likely growing the herbs that are used in her remedies and ointments, poultices, and teas. Herbs recommended in her book. 

She remained active with causes she cared about. She helped found the Women's Progressive Industrial Union. She, like many of the abolitionists after the Civil War, turned her sights to women's rights, and she lectured on temperance. 

She and Arthur enjoyed quiet companionship. She continuing to read aloud the daily newspapers and Bible passages. 

And then, 12 years after the book's publication in 1895, just one month shy of her 64th birthday, Dr. Rebecca Crumpler died. 

They say it was complications of fibroid tumors, an affliction that, even today, strikes Black women disproportionately. 

She was buried in Fairview Cemetery, just across the brook from their house in Hyde Park. Arthur followed 15 years later. Their side-by-side graves, left unmarked. 

Victoria Gall: People ask why did they not have a grave? And I can think of many reasons.

Dominique Janee: That, again, is Victoria Gall of the Hyde Park Historical Society. 

Victoria Gall: Maybe Dr. Crumpler felt there's much better ways to spend our money. Maybe they decided to wait after Arthur died, they had no family and most of their friends had died or moved away. So who would actually come here to see them?

Dominique Janee: So there was nothing to commemorate such a life. No grave marker. There aren't even any photos, says Victoria Gall, at least none that she's found. She points out that, when you Google "Rebecca Crumpler", random photos of Black women pop up. It's as if these women are interchangeable. 

And we know who many of them are. There's Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first Black female licensed nurse in the United States. And she's wearing a nurse's cap, clearly not Dr. Crumpler. Another photo is of Dr. Eliza Ann Grier, first Black female physician in the state of Georgia.

And when you order a reprint of Dr. Crumpler's "Book of Medical Discourses", it arrives with a photo of the American missionary and doctor, Georgia E. L. Patton Washington. 

Victoria Gall can't do much about that, but she did decide to do something about the missing grave marker. She launched a fundraiser. 

When the four Massachusetts medical schools got wind of this, they pitched in. And within weeks, enough money was raised to erect two headstones, one for Rebecca and one for Arthur.

And in 2020, 125 years after her death, there was a graveside dedication ceremony. 

So on a recent bright and windy day, we made our way out to Fairview Cemetery to see these new grave markers.

And there they were. Granite. Side by side. And she’s buried right next to her husband, Arthur. I leaned in to get a closer look. Carved into the front of her headstone, it says: 

"Rebecca Crumpler, 1831 to 1895. The first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the U. S., 1864." 

On the back, there's this: "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."

So there I am, looking up, past the gravestones and across the water, and straining to catch a glimpse of the Crumpler house on the other side of the brook. And then, I saw it. 

It might be hard to get a picture, but you can see it's the blue house with a white trim right across the water, which is called Mother Brook. So they're buried right across from where they last lived.

In recent years, scholarships have been awarded in the name of Rebecca Crumpler. Her house on Joy Street? It's now on Boston's Black Heritage Trail. Boston had a "Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day". And even the governor of Virginia got on board. Virginia, where she endured harassment while helping families freed from slavery.

Virginia declared March 30th, 2019 "Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day". 

For Lost Women of Science, I'm Dominique Janee. 

Katie Hafner: Why is it so important to reclaim stories like Rebecca Crumpler's? Stories buried for years and years. And why is it important to keep telling those stories in a way that sticks?

Joan Reede, the Diversity Dean at Harvard that I was telling you about at the beginning of the episode, and whom we have since recruited to the Lost Women of Science Advisory Board, puts it well. 

Joan Reede:  There are and have always been brave and strong women who made a difference. But their stories are lost to us. It's like taking a part of our history away. And how do we send the message that we didn't just show up now. We have been here for a long time making contributions.

Katie Hafner: Dominique Janee produced this episode. Barbara Howard was managing senior producer. Samia Bouzid was our audio engineer and sound designer. Thanks to Melody McCloud, Victoria Gall, Jim Downs, Shawn Quigley, Joan Reede, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. Thanks, too, to Amy Scharf, Jeff DelViscio, Eowyn Burtner, and Deborah Unger. Lost Women of Science is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Schmidt Futures. We're distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American. 

If you'd like to know more about Dr. Rebecca Crumpler, go to our website, and while you're there, scroll up to the donate button on the home page.

I'm Katie Hafner. See you next week.

Further reading/listening:

Episode Guests:

Dominique Janee is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Podcasting Certificate from the UC Berkeley Advanced Media Institute. She joined Lost Women of Science in January of 2022. As Associate Producer, she has ushered three earlier Lost Women of Science episodes to completion, researching, writing, editing, and providing voice over talent, while acting as liaison to Scientific American and PRX.
More by Dominique Janee
Katie Hafner is host and co-executive producer of Lost Women of Science. She was a longtime reporter for the New York Times,, where she remains a frequent contributor. Hafner is uniquely positioned to tell these stories. Not only does she bring a skilled hand to complex narratives, but she has been writing about women in STEM for more than 30 years. She is also host and executive producer of Our Mothers Ourselves, an interview podcast, and the author of six nonfiction books. Her first novel, The Boys, was published by Spiegel & Grau in July. Follow Hafner on Twitter @katiehafner
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The Lost Women of Science Initiative is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with two overarching and interrelated missions: to tell the story of female scientists who made groundbreaking achievements in their fields--yet remain largely unknown to the general public--and to inspire girls and young women to embark on careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
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