Women’s History Month: Who were Elizabeth Blackwell and Rebecca Lee Crumpler?

Women's_health_icon.svgAs I was wondering what to write today, I thought of the history of the word “hysterical.” I found this little gem of a read which annoyed me as much as it amused me. Seriously?!? Roving uterus theory?!? Okay.

Then I saw this article about the increasingly disappearing availability of maternal healthcare in rural Georgia. There are currently two OB/GYNS serving a 2,714 square mile area here in Georgia. That’s an area larger than the total size of Delaware.

Anywho, I got to thinking about how a woman would never come up with such a stupid idea as hysteria. I also wondered how women’s healthcare in America would have progressed had midwifery not been attacked and sacked by the American Medical Association. And all of that made me wonder about early female medical practitioners, who they were, and what they did.

After consulting the Googler, I discovered the stories of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (the first female doctor in the U.S.) and Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (the first Black female doctor in the U.S.). Seems like these women should be household names, right?

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England in 1821 to folks who were pretty well off as her daddy made his living in the sugarcane industry. An outbreak of cholera adversely affected the business and forced the family to migrate to the U.S. in 1832. The family first moved to New York City before settling in Cincinnati, Ohio where Elizabeth’s daddy died of biliary fever. To provide for the family, Elizabeth’s mother and two older sisters opened the Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies.

Blackwell herself went on to become a tutor and moved to Kentucky to teach full time. But once in Kentucky, she found slavery and racism too detestable to continue to be paid by Southerners. It wasn’t long before she moved back to Cincinnati and began to study medicine at the urging of a friend who was dying from cancer.

Initially apprehensive about the pursuit, the more Blackwell learned about the status quo of the medical industry, the more she became interested in medical studies. She didn’t like that men were running the show and had deemed women unfit to practice. Plus, if she didn’t work in some fulfilling capacity then she would have to succumb to social pressures and get married; she chose work.

When she didn’t have enough money to pay for medical school, she taught music for two years to save the necessary amount. Despite her credentials, she applied to and was rejected by more than 35 medical schools…because she was a woman. Blackwell was finally accepted to Geneva Medical College where she received her medical degree and graduated at the top of her class.

In 1853, she opened a clinic in New York City to serve the medical needs of women and children. When the clinic closed four years later, she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children which would eventually become the Beekman Downtown Hospital. This hospital is still in operation today under the name of  New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital.

Throughout the rest of her career, Dr. Blackwell would launch the Women’s Central Association of Relief during the Civil War to train nurses for war service. She was instrumental in developing the United States Sanitary Commission. She established the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary and was the professor of hygiene there before moving to London where she helped found the London School of Medicine and served as professor of gynecology. She died in 1906. At the time of Dr. Blackwell’s death, there were more than 7000 practicing female MDs in America.

A decade after Dr. Blackwell was born in England,  Rebecca Lee Crumpler (née Davis) was born in 1831 in Delaware. The story of her life and contributions would have been completely lost to American history had she not written a book. (Writers of Color, WRITE!)

Crumpler grew up an accomplished, well-educated student who was inspired by an aunt who regularly cared for sick neighbors. By the time Crumpler was 21 years old, she moved to Massachusetts and worked as a nurse up until the start of the Civil War in 1861. This was before the first formal nursing school opened in 1973. In 1864, Crumpler was the first Black American woman to earn an MD as well as the only Black woman to graduate from New England Female Medical College.

After relocating from Boston to Richmond, Virginia, Dr. Crumpler cared for newly emancipated slaves in collaboration with the Freedmen’s Bureau and other humanitarian organizations. She kept a journal of her work on women’s and children’s care all throughout her career. After returning to Boston in 1880, she wrote A Book of Medical Discourses which was published in 1883 and is currently for sale at WalMart.com. In the book’s intro, she said:

I have endeavored to give some domestic or ready palliative reliefs for the several cases described; thereby hoping to avoid the possibility of a remedy’s being applied without an acquaintance with the character and phases of the complaint for which it is intended. There is no doubt that thousands of little ones annually die at our very doors from diseases which could have been prevented, or cut short by timely aid. People do not wish to feel that death ensures through neglect on their part; indeed they speak of consumption, cholera infantum, and diphtheria, etc., as if sent by God to destroy our infants.

They seem to forget that there is a cause for every ailment, and that it may be in their power to remove it. My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.

Dr. Crumpler was intent on making life-saving, preventative medical care and techniques readily accessible and understandable to everyone. In the first four chapters of her book, she covered:

  • Biological/physiological implications of teen pregnancy and pregnancy in advanced age.
  • Early signs and symptoms of pregnancy and the necessity of immediate medical care upon discovery of pregnancy.
  • Dangers of drinking and smoking during pregnancy.
  • Proper cleansing and soap usage for newborns and infants.
  • Properly regulating a baby’s body temperature.
  • The importance of ensuring ongoing observation by a knowledgeable caregiver following childbirth.
  • Proper methods of tying off the umbilical cord.

If you don’t mind reading the book online, you can find it here. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler died in 1895. The Rebecca Lee Society of Women in Medicine was founded in 1989 in her name with a mission of breaking down barriers in medicine.

It’s crazy that more than 100 years later, we’re still fighting for access to the care that these women fought to be able to deliver in the first place. From 7:30 -10:30am tomorrow (March 18th), there is protest called Pack the Capitol planned at the Georgia State Capitol in response to the Heartbeat Bill. For more information, click here.

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