Celebrating Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American female physician in the United States

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Last month on February 3, 2019, we celebrated National Women Physician’s Day (NWPD). Created in 2016 by the Physician Mom Group (PMG) in collaboration with Physicians Working Together (PWT) and Medelita, NWPD honors the first female physician in the U.S., Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and highlights gender inequality in medicine. The day is a social media “holiday” of sorts, with timelines flooded with inspirational posts of women in white coats declaring “#IamBlackwell.” The posts are motivational and create a sense of unity, saying “we female physicians are all in this together, doing our individual parts to change the landscape of medicine.” The posts also remind us how much is yet to be done related to gender disparities within the physician workforce.

There is also another hashtag we should note: “#IamCrumpler.” But who is Crumpler? Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American female physician in the United States.

Born on February 8, 1831, in Delaware, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was raised by her aunt who was known as the community nurse, caring for the sick and shut-in of the neighborhood. It is this early exposure to medicine that Dr. Crumpler credited as her inspiration for practicing as a nurse and then entering medical school in 1860. In 1864 Dr. Crumpler graduated from the New England Female Medical College, becoming the first African American woman physician in the U.S.

Ironically, Dr. Crumpler was also the only African American physician to graduate from the medical college since it closed in 1873. Initially, Dr. Crumpler practiced in Boston, MA, however after the Civil War ended she relocated to Richmond, Virginia and set up practice caring for newly freed slaves with the Freedmen’s Bureau. Not only was she the first black female physician in the U.S., but she also was one of the first African Americans to publish a medical text.

In 1883 she published A Book of Medical Discourses, a two-part guide on infant and women’s health. Reports regarding Dr. Crumpler’s later life are sparse, with records showing she later moved back to Massachusetts with her husband and died on March 9, 1895.

To put into perspective Dr. Crumpler’s accomplishments, in 1860, the year in which Dr. Crumpler matriculated into medical school only 300 of the 54,543 physicians in the U.S. were female. That’s less than one percent. How far have we come since Crumpler? Some would say quite far, others would say not far enough.

Currently, approximately 35 percent of practicing physicians are female.

However, just two percent of practicing physicians are black females. These numbers are substandard considering 51 percent of the U.S. population identifies as female, and approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population is black and female. The statistics underscore what we already know. The physician workforce does not reflect the diversity of this nation. While the reasons for the underrepresentation of minorities and women in medicine are complex, the solution is even more complex consisting of improved recruitment, retention and inclusion.

Holidays like NWPD and the #WhataDoctorLooksLike, a social media campaign in response to biased employees prohibiting black doctors from responding to in-flight emergencies, are important parts of combating the implicitly biased view that physicians are white males. These campaigns aim to increase the visibility of women and minorities in medicine and challenge stereotypes that narrow the perspective of what a doctor looks like, further enhancing diversity and inclusion in medicine.

Kristyn J. Smith is an emergency medicine resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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