Celebrating National Black Women Physicians Day: from Dr. Rebecca Crumpler to Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith
The first Black woman enrolled in medical school over 150 years ago, named Dr. Rebecca Crumpler. She is receiving renewed attention due to National Black Women Physicians Day, inaugurated on February 8, 2021. In addition, the first ever advisor to the president on health equity is in the current administration, named Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith. Black women are currently just under 3% of all physicians, so Drs. Crumpler and Nunez-Smith are especially notable for their achievements against the odds.
Dr. Rebecca Crumpler, “Doctress of Medicine”
According to the NIH’s “Changing the Face of Medicine” project, Dr. Crumpler began her career as a nurse at 21 years old in 1852. The first U.S. nursing school opened 19 years later, so she worked without formal training for 8 years before enrolling into medical school in 1860 at the New England Female Medical College. In her Book of Medical Discourses she states, “…serving under different doctors for a period of eight years; most of the time at my adopted home in Charlestown, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. From these doctors I received letters commending me to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College.” It turned out she’d be the only African American woman to graduate from New England Female Medical College, which closed in 1873.
Dr. Crumpler’s medical career began in Richmond, VA, after the Civil War ended in 1865. During that time she began a legacy that continues today of black women physicians working in underserved areas for people of color. She cared for freed slaves, particularly women and children who would otherwise not have access to care. She continued her career in Boston, MA. In her own words, “I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration.”
Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Another First
Dr. Nunez-Smith is the current chair of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. According to her bio on Yale’s School of Medicine Website, she is a physician and associate professor of medicine and epidemiology. Her highly-decorated career demonstrates a focus on health disparities. She is originally from the US Virgin Islands and also heads the Eastern Carribean Health Outcomes Research Network.
She first caught my attention when I saw her on the news, speaking on COVID-19 disparities in her advisory role with the Biden-Harris administration. I was skeptical that President Biden’s commitment to racial disparities would translate to anything tangible. So to see a black, female physician in a prominent role addressing health disparities is a huge step in the right direction.
A focus on health equity in the U.S. government is unprecedented, but so necessary. In modern U.S. medicine there is a tendency to blame people of color for health inequities. With vaccines, for example, it can be easy to fault Black Americans for poor vaccination rates in their communities, writing them off as distrustful of the health system or uneducated. Distrust is one issue to contend with (U.S. government experiments on black syphilis patients in Tuskegee, developing the HeLa cell line unbeknownst to the black woman they came from…the list goes on). But Black people are receiving COVID vaccines at half or one-third the rate of white Americans, and it’s complicated. As Dr. Nunez-Smith has said, “I think that in every conversation around vaccine hesitancy or confidence, we are obligated to think a little deeper.”