Nation’s first black female physician blazed trails to DeKalb

Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864. In 1883, she became the first black physician to write a medical textbook and the only female physician-author in the 19th century.
Dr. Runette Flowers

In the 1980s, Dr. Runette Flowers, Dr. Rogsbert Phillips and I became the first black female physicians to establish medical practices in DeKalb County for our specialties: pediatrics, general surgery and obstetrics-gynecology, respectively.

Being the “first” comes with responsibility –also challenges and curiosities. Sometimes there’s even jealousy and naysayers. But the courageously committed rise above it all, and any challenges we faced pale to those faced by the trailblazing physician Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

As the Civil War raged in 1864, Rebecca Lee marked her place in history when she became the first black female to graduate from medical school in the United States.

She received an M.D. degree from the New England Female Medical College, now Boston University School of Medicine, which is also my alma mater.

This month, Boston University is celebrating the life of this pioneering black woman physician with the unveiling of an exhibit in her honor. Crumpler’s story speaks to the importance of role models, courage and conquering challenges.

Raised by an aunt who provided care to the sick, an imprint was made on Crumpler. At 21, young Rebecca moved to Massachusetts and worked for eight years as a nurse.

Physicians noted her dedication, skills and intellect. Armed with their letters of recommendation, Rebecca Lee applied and was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860.

She graduated from medical school, married Arthur Crumpler and worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau in Richmond, Va., which was established by Congress in 1865 to help repair Civil War-torn communities.

Crumpler provided medical care to thousands of recently freed slaves who were routinely denied medical care by white physicians.

Dr.Dr. Rogsbert Phillips 

She endured very harsh conditions, disparaging comments and intense discrimination by most fellow physicians. Some administrators would not readily grant her hospital privileges, and many pharmacists would not honor her prescriptions. Some people wisecracked that “the M.D. behind her name stood for nothing more than ‘Mule Driver.’”

In 1869, Crumpler returned to Boston and opened her practice.

In 1883, she blazed another trail, becoming the first black physician to write a medical textbook and the only female physician-author in the 19th century. Her book, titled “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” is a reference on women and children’s health.

Today, blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but a 2014 report of the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Diversity in Physician Workforce Facts and Figures shows that only 4 percent of the more than 834,000 physicians in the United States are black.

Given that ethnic health care disparities abound and it is mostly black and other minority physicians who provide care to underserved, underprivileged patient populations, the dearth of black physicians is palpable and problematic.

It is not that today’s black youth lack the intellect to become medical professionals, but there must be a seismic shift of focus from what I call “being busy with a whole lot of nothing” – social media, sports, hip-hop and, yes, crime – to an emphasis on science, technology, electronics and math. Visible role models are important.

As a black female who grew up as a poor, latchkey kid in a single-parent home, the odds were against me. But I had another “first” black woman: my then-pediatrician, Dr. Doris Wethers.

I also had a self-determination to rise above formidable circumstances. It is possible to overcome and to blaze new trails: In 1985, I became the first black female to establish an obstetrics and gynecology practice in DeKalb County, and only the third to do so in metro Atlanta.

Crumpler’s courage and legacy continue to inspire. In 2012, 880 black women graduated from American medical schools, compared to only 517 black males, who also lag behind Hispanic male physicians (766 graduates in 2012).

“Dr. Crumpler broke so many barriers. She needs to be honored as the American original she was,” states Dr. Douglas Hughes, Boston University School of Medicine’s associate dean of academic affairs.

We can honor Crumpler’s legacy with new, vibrant generations of black physicians. Her legacy deserves it, communities need it, and the nation and world need to see it. It is past time.

Dr.Melody T. McCloud

Dr. Melody T. McCloud is author of “Living Well: The Black Woman’s Guide to Health, Sex and Happiness.” She is affiliated with Emory University Hospital Midtown.

Ed. This wonderful historical biography first appeared in the February 19, 2016 issue of Cross Roads News, Decatur, Georgia. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.