Black History Month: Medical Pioneers

In the 19th century, how easy was it for a woman to become a medical doctor, given so many colleges let alone medical schools didnt let women even attend? Not very easy. How easy was it for a Black man to become an doctor given the same facts? Not to mention the fact of segregation in the medical field – so that many hospitals wouldnt let a Black doctor have privileges there…

So now consider how tough it must have been for Rebecca Lee Davis Crumpler  to become the first African American female doctor in 1864.

Yet, become one she did.

Crumpler was born in 1831 in Delaware and went to be a nurse in Charlestown, MA. (Whaat? Love the local connection.) She graduated from New England Female Medical College (later part of Boston University).

But what is as impressive and interesting as the fact she got a degree is that she dedicated her career to helping poor, newly freed slaves, practicing mainly in Richmond, VA. She also was one of the first African Americans to publish a medical text, Book of Medical Discourses.

In a sad and ironic twist this historic figure remains invisible in the annals of history in a literal sense as no pictures of her exist.  Here’s a photo of her book, though:

Here’s another fascinating story – this one with photos.  Justina Warren Ford was the first black woman doctor west of the Mississippi. Some people may know I am in a massive Gunsmoke phase so this kind of  old west stuff fascinates me.

Ford was from the midwest and went to medical school there.  But, according to one account, she moved to Colorado – the frontier in those days! – when her husband got called to run a church out there. It sounds like Dr Quinn Medicine Woman, except, the woman is black.

Some accounts say that when she applied for her license, the clerk said he felt bad charging her since she had two strikes against her- race and sex.  Another issue – many hospitals were shut to her and the major medical associations wouldnt let her in. This was obviously signficant in keeping her from accessing all the things hospitals and peers prodvice. However, she started a practice from her house as a general practioner and and worked for over fifty years treating people  of all backgrounds who were turned away elsewhere because they didn’t speak the language or couldn’t pay. She learned several languages to better help her patients.

There’s a movie in there somewhere.

And for those of you with an interest in the paranormal (you know who you are) – here’s a story about Dr. Ford’s old house  and how she may not be totally “gone” from it…

I also want to note the first African American male doctor was James McCune Smith who got his medical degree at the University of Scotland of all places. A contemporary and friend of Frederick Douglas, Smith was also a vocal abolitionist and writer. He was the only staff doctor at The Colored Orphan Asylym which was a orphanage for black kids in New York City.  (A very bizarre historical event happened there- wow, you never know what you’ll learn about on these things…)

Anyhow,  Im glad I wasnt alive back then when medicine was so rudimentary – or when a person’s potential was so limited by society’s prejudices. Something to be watchful for, even now.


2 thoughts on “Black History Month: Medical Pioneers

  1. *eagerly awaiting that movie*
    Hope you’re working on it, Beth!

    Re the incident, I have but 3 letters in mind.. WTF?! I try to limit how much my current-day lens influences my vision of historical events.. but my little brain is still unable to process some things.

  2. as always thanks for reading!! yeah, that orphanage burning? i was looking at the nytimes report back in 1864 and they were with you. i think burning orphanages is just one of those things that has never been a good idea!

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