In 1860, there were only 300 women physicians in the US, and none of them were black. That was the year that Rebecca Lee Crumpler was accepted into the New England Female Medical College, after working as a nurse for eight years. She was awarded her medical degree four years later, the only black graduate of the school in its 23-year history. Dr. Crumpler began her practice in the waning months of the Civil War, and answered the call where she was needed.
Emancipation and the long war left millions of African-Americans without adequate shelter, food or access to medical care. In the fall of 1865, there were only about 80 doctors and a dozen hospitals available to treat more than 4 million freed slaves. And most of the hospitals run by the Freedmen’s Bureau, the federal agency charged with helping those freed slaves, could treat no more than 20 patients at a time because of lack of funding.
It was an almost unimaginable public health crisis, and in 1865, Dr. Crumpler — one of the few Black women employed by Freedmen’s Bureau — rushed headlong into the breach, leaving Boston for Richmond to minister to the medical needs of as many of the freed slaves as she could. In addition to her desire to help a population of more than 30,000 people, she knew her extensive field experience in Virginia would provide her “ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” According to Downs, the Civil War offered physicians like Crumpler “the opportunity to treat an unprecedented number of patients and to learn more about medicine and the body.”
Crumpler went on to focus on the health of women and children, and published a book that became a household medical guide for families. Read about Crumpler’s life and career at Ozy.