Although Black female physicians represent a paltry 2% of the physician workforce in the United States, that number would be a shameful zero if it had not been for Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler. Not only was she the first Black female physician accepted to a U.S. med school, but that school was my alma mater, Boston University School of Medicine.
When I entered BUSM in 1983, there were no busts or statutes of Dr. Crumpler on campus and I would only learn about our amazing connection 30 years later at an alumni reunion weekend. I honestly think my beloved alma mater did not understand how much Black women loved Dr. Crumpler and the meaning of her sacrifice. She and her husband, Arthur, lie in unmarked graves in Hyde Park, MA, for 125 years until local charities, all four Massachusetts medical schools and a fellow alum, Dr. Melody McCloud raised $5,000.00 to erect two headstones to commemorate both her life and death.
Although her career began as a nurse, she was encouraged to apply to the New England Female Medical College (NEFMC) by the male physicians with whom she worked. She was accepted in 1860 and graduated in 1864. The NEFMC had the support of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, a staunch abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. According to Wikipedia, 300 women attended NEFMC from 1848 to 1870, but only 5 students graduated each year and the curriculum included writing a thesis and passing a final exam. Dr. Crumpler fulfilled all of these requirements.
After Dr. Crumpler’s graduation, she practiced in Boston but then worked with the Freedman’s Bureau, taking care of newly emancipated enslaved Blacks in Richmond, VA. The NEFMC merged with Boston University in 1873 and Dr. Crumpler later returned to Boston and continued to work there until her death in 1895.
Boston University has a long-standing history of supporting diversity and the education of Black and brown people including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (PhD 1955), former Senator Ed Brookes (JD) , former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (JD), former US Secretary of Health Louis Sullivan (MD) and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (BA 2011).
I am eternally grateful to Boston University School of Medicine for admitting Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler on whose shoulders I stand. In the spirit of Black History Month, I encourage everyone to support the Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Scholarship Fund at BUSM. It is a way of honoring her memory and ensuring that the medical education of women who look like me continues.
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