Physician Firsts of the 19th Century

As the nineteenth century approached, the concept and profession of medicine was far from highly developed as it is today. There is a vast difference in the practices and work opportunities within the field of medicine today versus in the nineteenth century. Training was held highly diverse between men and women. During this time period, the advances in technology and the study resulted in major changes to the profession of medicine.[i]There are of course the broads descriptions of the professions within medicine such as physicians, apothecaries, and surgeons, but for my research I specifically am focusing on some of the very first physicians and their contributions to the study of medicine. Important physicians such as Dr. James McCure Smith, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker immensely helped contribute to the evolution of medicine.[ii]

  [ix] Physicians In The 19th Century 

Dr. James McCure Smith was essentially  known as one of the most accomplished black intellectuals and activists in America. Dr. McCure Smith was born April 18, 1813 in New York. He attended the ‘African Free School’ in New York City for his early life education. As McCure approached graduation, he longed for admissions into American colleges, but was denied by many. He raised money and in favor attended the university of Glasgow in Scotland. After completing his master and bachelors, he then went to complete his medical degree in 1837. The completion of his degree made him the the very first African American to earn a medical degree. McCure later opened a medical office and pharmacy in New York. He served both black and white patients at the pharmacy. He is best remembered as the first black American to earn a medical degree and practice medicine in the United States.[iii]

   [x] Dr. James McCune Smith

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol England in 1821. Her family moved to the United States in 1832. [iv]They settled in New York and her father, Sam Blackwell, became the active in abolitionist activities. The family moved to New Jersey in 1835 and moved to Ohio in 1838. Samuel Blackwell passed away soon after the move and Elizabeth and her sisters opened a private school. Elizabeth taught school to help support her family. She taught in 1845-1847 in North and South Carolina. Elizabeth later undertook the study of medicine. In 1847, she began seeking admission to a medical school. All of her first choice options rejected her, but was admitted into Geneva Medical College In Geneva, New York. College was difficult for Blackwell. She was demonetized and harassed by townspeople and many male students.

Despite that she continued and ranked first in her class in January 1849. She became the first woman in the US to graduate from medical school and the first woman doctor of medicine. In January 1859, she became the first woman to have her name placed on the British Medical register. In 1869, Blackwell permanently resided in England. She owned a successful private practice, helped organize the national Health Society in 1817 and in 1875 she was appointed professor of gynecology at the ‘London School of Medicine for Women. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell is remembered as the first American female to receive medical degree.[v]

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born free in Delaware in 1831. Crumpler was raised by her aunt, a health care provider for the local area. In 1852, Crumpler resided in Charlestown, Ma. and was hired as a nurse. Although she enjoyed her new job, she longed to take the next step and become more than a nurse. In 1860, she was accepted into the ‘ New England Female Medical College. After graduating from college, she became the first African American woman to earn a ‘Doctor of Medicine Degree’ at the New England Female College. Crumpler soon after formed a medical practice in Boston for poor women and children. By 1869, Crumpler had returned to her practice on Beacon Hill where she provided medical care to women and children. Crumpler married Dr. Arthur Crumpler after completion of her medical degree. Crumpler’s life ended in 1895 in Massachusetts. She was best remembered as the first African American woman to become a physician in the United States.[vi] 

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 2, 1832 to an abolitionist family in Oswego County, New York.[vii] Dr. Edwards received her early education at the ‘Falley Seminary’ in New York. Edwards pursued a career that was predominately a male’s field of study. She enrolled at Syracuse Medical College. In 1855 she graduated with a doctor of medicine degree. Soon after she resigned her stay in Columbus, Ohio. there she opened a private practice. She marries Albert Miller, physician and they both moved to Rome, New York. After the Civil War began in 1861, Dr Edwards started volunteering as a nurse in the patient Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. When she took a break from volunteering in 1862, she pursued a degree from New York Hygelo-Therapeutic College in New York City. Walker passed away on February 21, 1919 in Oswego, New York. She is best remembered as a physician and women’s rights activist; who received the medal of Honor for service during the Civil War.[viii]


  1.“Student Paper On 19Th-Century Medicine.” N.p., 2018. Web. 24 Sept. 2018.
  2.  Smith, James McCune (1813-1865) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed
  3., D. and Lane, D. (2018). Dr. James McCune Smith: The Nation’s First Black Doctor.
  4.“Elizabeth Blackwell | Biography & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica. N.p., 2018. Web. 24 Sept. 2018.
  5., (2018) Bulletin of the history of Women: Women And Medicine In Ante-Bellum America
  6., Femi (2017) Rebecca Lee Crumpler: First African-American Women to Become a Physician
  7., U.S. “Dr. Mary Edwards Walker | Center Of Military History.” N.p., 2018. Web. 24 Sept. 2018.
  8.“Mary Walker.” Biography. N.p., 2018. Web. 24 Sept. 2018.