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OU College of Medicine to Honor First African-American Woman to Earn Medical Degree

Executive Dean John Zubialde, M.D., and medical student Melissa Onyekuru unveil a plaque in honor Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree.

The OU College of Medicine recently honored Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree, during a ceremony on Feb. 20.

OU medical students who are members of the college’s chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association initiated the idea to recognize women from diverse backgrounds and their contributions to the field of medicine. To honor Crumpler, the OU College of Medicine renamed a student module after her. Modules are rooms where students spend many hours studying and having group discussions during their first two years of medical school. Upon entering medical school, students learn about the namesakes of their modules, a symbolic step that sets the stage for their education.

“This ceremonial event is reflective of the empowerment that OU College of Medicine students feel as they pay homage and celebrate the pioneering work of women doctors who have come before them,” said Robert C. Salinas, M.D., Assistant Dean for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement.

OU medical student Carlie Pearson, president of the college’s chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association, said she hopes that when potential students tour the halls of the building, they see themselves reflected in the faces around them, including the honorees on the walls.

“As the first black female U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders said, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ By highlighting a side of history that is often excluded from the mainstream, we can change the narrative and demonstrate the pivotal roles that women of color have played in the field of medicine,” Pearson said.

OU College of Medicine student Melissa Onyekuru holds a plaque in honor of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree.

Crumpler was born in 1831 in Delaware and was raised by her aunt, a nurse who cared for neighbors and community members and inspired her niece to do the same for eight years. After that time, Crumpler was accepted as the first African-American student at the New England Female Medical College in Boston, where she earned her medical degree in 1864.

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, Crumpler moved her practice to Virginia and provided medical care for freed slaves for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a time when she faced harsh racism and sexism as an African-American female doctor in the postwar South. Crumpler focused her care on women and children, and she kept a journal during that time that was published as a book in 1883 called “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.” It is one of the first medical publications by an African-American.

“We believe that displaying empowering images of women like Dr. Crumpler can instill confidence in the next generation of physicians of color and build a legacy for increasing access to healthcare for minority communities,” said Stephanie Schatzman-Bone, president of the OU College of Medicine Class of 2020.

Along with the student chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association, the event was hosted by the OU College of Medicine Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement, and the OU College of Medicine Office of Student Affairs.