January 30, 2014
To further honor both black history and the women’s health movement, I would like to introduce you to Rebecca Lee Crumpler, an African American woman and early pioneer in the nursing field, who lived from 1831 to 1895.
Rebecca was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree at a time when advanced education for women was rare and for African American women, improbable.
Rebecca was born free in Delaware and raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania who had a profound effect on her. The aunt was the person in the community to whom everyone came for medical assistance. Her service to the community became Rebecca’s inspiration for her life’s calling. Rebecca wrote early on that she knew her life’s work had to be in a field where she could “relieve the sufferings of others,” as her aunt had done.
There were no schools of nursing at that time, but that did not deter Rebecca. In 1852, she moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where for eight years she learned on the job to become a nurse. She impressed the doctors with whom she worked, and they submitted letters recommending that she be admitted to the New England Female Medical College. Her acceptance at the college was highly unusual, as there were few medical schools and most did not admit African Americans.
Although her studies were interrupted by war, she graduated in 1864 and became the first African American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree, and the only African American woman to ever graduate from the New England Female Medical College.
After the war, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia, where her main focus was on the health needs of freed slaves. In her work with other black doctors, she tended to large groups of the poor and destitute who otherwise would have had little access to medical care. Thus a new path was forged for healthcare in underserved communities.
In 1869, she and her husband, Arthur Crumpler, returned to Boston and established a practice where she specialized in caring for women and children. In 1883 her Book of Medical Discourses was published; the book was written for women to provide them with information to understand how to care for the health of their families.
We often take for granted the privilege of education, of attaining our aspirations and of received healthcare when we have those things. We often forget that not all people, especially women, get the education they need to attain their aspirations or the healthcare access they need to live long, productive lives.
I hope Rebecca’s story will remind us all of the impact one woman can have if given the opportunity to try.
For more information about Racial and Ethnic health disparities consider the following facts:
Infants born to black women are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to die than those born to women of other races/ethnicities and American Indian and Alaska Native infants die from SIDS at nearly 2.5 times the rate of white infants.
African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives are twice as likely to have diabetes as white individuals; diabetes rates among Hispanics are 1.5 times higher than those for whites.
Leading factors in cause of death in Tennessee:
- High blood pressure
- No leisure time-physical activity
- Smoking currently
- Eating 5+ fruits and vegetable a day
Visit the American Public Health Association to download more important facts about health disparities and what can be done to address the issues.