There are so many ‘fathers of’ various fields in medicine, ever wondered why there are no ‘mothers’? It’s definitely not for a lack of trying. Reclaim The Bench’s new episode is about honouring someone who should have been rightly called “the mother of modern gynaecology.”
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African-American woman to become a Doctor of Medicine in the United States of America. This happened in a time when less than 1% of the total 54,543 doctors in the country were women. And none of them were black.
Rebecca Davis, before marriage and doctor title, started out her medicinal journey as a nurse. In her book, the first female-physician authored book of medicine, she thanks her aunt for raising her. She was a healer in their community and imbued Dr Crumpler with a passion for healing others. In an era where men were busy writing verses in their own praise, Dr Crumpler’s book had no personal praises, in fact not much personal information beyond the introduction. A Book of Medical Discourses was truly a text about medicine, not a way for her to promote herself as many authors of that era were wont to do. Her achievements cannot be possibly over-sold.
In the episode Megan and Jamal elaborate on why this was revolutionary for the time. The episode can be accessed on TuneIn, YouTube, Spotify, RedCircle, Google Podcast, Apple Podcast, and Reclaim The Bench website.
She was exceptional from the start, as her mentors observed while she served as an apprentice. While working with war veterans, her brilliance and etiquettes impressed her seniors and they recommended her to attend the school. She enrolled in New England Female Medical College in 1860. Four years later, she was the first black, female doctor to ever graduate; a year before the official abolishment of slavery.
The piece of white paper signed by the “liberators” in coloured ink might have suggested that all slaves were now free. But outside the dimensions of those documents, the reality wasn’t so black and white. The freed slaves were still denied the dignity of a human. The white doctors often refused black patients. There was a clear distinction between their social statuses.
She was the first black, female doctor to ever graduate; a year before the official abolishment of slavery.
Dr Crumpler knew the reality and focused all her energy on working toward her community and emancipation of those denied their rights.
She worked towards healing, she later became an educator, she wrote a book about gynaecology where she talks about the woman as an actual human who needs care. Unlike ‘the father of modern gynaecology,’ James Marion Sims, who simply used slave women to have a professional legacy. To Dr Crumpler, the world of gynaecology was about the mother’s health, the child’s care, and making their lives better.
Despite it all, she is hardly hailed as any sort of pioneer in the field of gynaecology. Even today, medicine books are more likely to pick a male-authored citation even if a female-led study is available. It’s seen in other fields too, like academics, history, literature.
Our team wonders, isn’t it time we started hailing Dr Crumpler as the true pioneer of gynaecology, for all her contributions? If you’re still not sold to the idea, listen to the whole episode and give the idea another penny.