5 Facts About the First Black Female Physician, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Cinemax’s The Knick shows the bloody and brutal history of 19th and early 20th century medicine in this country in graphic fashion. Algernon Edwards, portrayed by Andre Holland, is the first Black doctor at the New York knickerbocker hospital during a time of extreme lynching and post-reconstruction racism. He faces segregation, bureaucracy and an inhumane level of  social immobility but he continues to push through.

Now imagine if it was a Black woman making a name for herself in the 1800s as a medical doctor. You’d be accurate if you were imagining Rebecca Lee Crumpler— the first Black physician in America and the first Black woman to earn a medical degree.

g1_u60509_rebecca_crumplerHer Early Life

There is very little information about Crumpler (1831-1895). Documents and photos of her life have been lost to time except for a journal she kept.

Crumpler wanted to enter the medical field but had few opportunities. In the 19th century, being a nurse required little education and was a stepping stone for Black people. Before becoming a doctor, she worked as a nurse, starting in 1852. In order to find work, Crumpler  moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she worked for the next eight years.

The Importance of Knowing How and Why Black History Matters

Before this year, I didn’t like celebrating Black History Month. While I was grateful for the contributions of the Black people who came before me, I didn’t like celebrating Black History Month because I felt like Black history didn’t matter today.

This dislike for Black History Month didn’t come overnight. It started in high school, where I kept hearing and seeing the same old faces being taught. In high school, we had Black History Month assemblies in the gym each year. At first, these were entertaining. By my junior year, I had gotten bored by them. During my senior year, I didn’t go at all.

Another reason I came to dislike Black History Month is because I didn’t see the past contributions of Black people being reflected anywhere in the mainstream media. In fall 2010, I was doing research on the history of rock music for a college paper and was surprised to discover that Black musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard had pioneered rock ‘n’ roll.

When I discovered this, I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I was excited to hear Chuck Berry’s music and see old live performances clips on YouTube. On the other hand, I was upset that I hadn’t learned about Black people inventing rock ‘n’ roll in grade school. I was also disappointed because I thought that there weren’t any Black rock musicians today.

Last year, I realized that there were current Black musicians in rock as well as every other genre besides hip-hop, pop, and R&B. Using the site Afropunk to do further research, I discovered hundreds of bands and musicians like Skunk Anansie, Gary Clark Jr., Marian Mereba and more. All these musicians were either independent musicians or not widely known.

At the same time, I was digging deeper into the past and discovering other musicians not in any school textbook. Some examples included Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Nina Simone and Betty Davis. Soon I was able to make connections about who influenced who today and gain an immense appreciation for Black musicians in almost every genre.

In addition to the music, I also discovered Black speculative fiction, a literary genre that comprises Black authors of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. According to an I09 article, Black speculative fiction has been around since the 19th century. Some current Black speculative fiction authors I have read include Balogun Ojetade, Tananarive Due and N.K. Jemisin.

Read more by Latonya Pennington at Black Girl Nerds