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Is that Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler? Misidentification, copyright, and pesky historical details

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler coin (The Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Is this Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler? Probably not.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler is famous for being the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in the US -- graduating in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College (which later merged with Boston University School of Medicine).

Understandably, people want to see a picture of this important historical figure, who lived from 1831 to 1895.  Unfortunately, as far as we know, there are no photographs of her, although we've talked to researchers who feel that there's a decent chance that photos exist but without the benefit of Dr. Crumpler being identified in them.

If you search online for Crumpler images (Google or Bing), you come up with several possible images of Crumpler -- looking today (in June 2013), in the first 10 results, I see photos and illustrations of individuals who are identified as Crumpler, but are in fact people like Mary Eliza Mahoney (first black nurse in the US), Rebecca Cole (the 2nd black woman physician in the US), Elizabeth Blackwell (first woman physician in the US and UK), Eliza Grier, and other individuals.

But dozens of websites identify this image (above left) as Dr. Rebecca Lee (Crumpler).  It is a popular choice because the medal includes a stamp actually identifying it as Rebecca Lee.  Several of the websites, including PBS and Time, also provide the source of the image, saying it comes from our collections.  Because of this, we receive a number of inquiries asking if people can use the image in publications, on websites, TV programs, etc.

I've developed a standard response that I tweak accordingly each time I receive a request to use this image:

  1. We do not hold the copyright on the image, so it would be up to you to either identify and contact the copyright holder (who may have been the Sun Oil Company, as of 1980…see #2 below) or accept the risk of using it without the copyright holder’s permission.  The risk is there, although it’s probably minimal.  The brochure and image might even be in the public domain and free to use, or it's feasible that the copyright is held by the artist who created the medal.  But as with many copyright issues, it is hard to know for sure without a proper copyright search -- and even then you still might not know.  It all comes down to the amount of risk you want to take on.
  2. This may be the biggest issue, historically speaking....  I believe that the image of the woman on the medal is not actually Rebecca Lee Crumpler.  That medal is 1 of 12 named medals that appear to have been created around 1980 as part of Sun Oil Company’s involvement in the Charles Drew Award.  I suspect that they were unable to find an actual image of Crumpler so they used or created a generic image of an African American woman appropriate to her time period.  Again, I’m not sure of this; it is more of a strong gut feeling.

After my barrage of caveats, it is always interesting to see who comes back to say that they want the image anyway.  For some users and some uses, the risk and uncertainty is not a problem.  For other users, they decide to not pursue the matter any further -- although I always wonder if it because the copyright risk, because it may be a "generic" image, or a combination of these issues.

What will happen with search results because we posted this image here?  By the end of 2013, will people start seeing this when they search for Rebecca Lee Crumpler, branded with my question about the veracity of the image? What will be the effect of that?

What I'm really hoping is that someone will come forward to refute or verify my assumption that this is not Dr. Crumpler.  I'd love to find out that it is her and see the source for the image on the medal.

Ceci n'est pas Rebecca Lee Crumpler?