For every Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin whose story has been told, hundreds of female scientists remain unknown to the public at large. In this series, we illuminate the lives and work of a diverse array of groundbreaking scientists who, because of time, place and gender, have gone largely unrecognized. Each season we focus on a different scientist, putting her narrative into context, explaining not just the science but also the social and historical conditions in which she lived and worked. We also bring these stories to the present, painting a full picture of how her work endures.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, born in 1831, was the first African American female medical doctor in the U.S. and is considered the first Black person to publish a medical book. In it, Dr. Crumpler lays out best practices for good health with a focus on women and children. She writes that she was inspired by her aunt, a community healer and midwife, who raised her in Pennsylvania. In 1864, during the Civil War, Rebecca graduated from the New England Female Medical College, the world’s first medical school for women and the founding institution of what is now the Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. The following year, in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, she traveled to Virginia to treat refugees. Many women and children, suddenly freed from bondage, were dying. She worked to dispel the myth that recently freed slaves were spreading disease, rightly pointing instead to poor living conditions. There are no known photos of Rebecca Crumpler, but a Boston newspaper article describes her in her 60s as “tall and straight, with light brown skin and gray hair”. Rebecca Crumpler was ahead of her time, promoting preventive medicine, and she paved the way for women of color in the field of public health.