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Just Imagine…Preventive Medicine for All

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

Rebecca Crumpler was born in Delaware in 1831 and raised in Pennsylvania by her aunt who cared for the sick in their community. While her aunt was not trained as a doctor, she took care of those who were sick. Her aunt became an inspiration for Rebecca’s career. Rebecca worked as a nurse before she attended the New England Female Medical College. While opportunities for medical training were generally rare for women and African Americans, the Civil War had magnified the need for physicians. Upon her graduation in 1864, she became the first African American woman to be formally trained as a doctor in the US.

Rebecca’s interest in a medical career was also greatly influenced by her marriage. Her husband’s son from a previous marriage died at the age of 7, which provided additional motivation for her nursing career. Her husband died when she was in medical school.

Dr. Crumpler focused her medical practice on medical care for newly freed enslaved people. After the end of the Civil War, she moved from Massachusetts to Richmond where she worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau to help, in her words, the “indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored.” Later, she would write about working with “vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration.”

In her practice, she learned a lot about diseases that women and children were likely to have. But she also experienced intense racism and sexism. She could not get prescriptions honored. She received little support from male doctors who were disdainful of her treatment of patients who could not afford medical care.

In 1883, Dr. Crumpler converted the medical notes from her career into a book, A Book of Medical Discourses, centering on the health of women and children. Dr. Crumpler’s focus on disease prevention ran counter to the prevailing sentiment of the medical community of the time, which focused more on the treatment of medical issues after they presented themselves. At the time, she faced rejection from the dominant medical community for her preventive focus. But today we view prevention of disease as essential to healthy living.

Just imagine what it took to be a hidden hero like Dr. Rebecca Crumpler. She faced a number of significant challenges, especially strong and pervasive discrimination based on her race and gender. Nonetheless, Dr. Crumpler did not let these challenges keep her from what she believed to be her life’s work This required great confidence and resilience. Just imagine what we might do to foster and instill such confidence and resilience in the heroes of our own time.   Just imagine a society that nurtures confidence and resilience of its people but without putting up unnecessary barriers and challenges. How might it be possible to develop these individual attributes or mindsets without adversity? Just imagine the impact Rebecca Crumpler could have had if she had been fully included and accepted within society and viewed as an equal within the medical field.

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“If access tot health care is considered a human right, who is considered human enough to have that right?”–Paul Farmer, American medical anthropologist and physician


This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.