8 June 2023

Rebecca Cole: The Story of the African-American Woman Who Became the Second Black Female Doctor in the United States Medical History



Throughout her life, this woman has faced racial discrimination on the way to achieving her dreams. But she didn’t break down; on the contrary, it hardened her to overcome difficulties and fight for the rights of black women. Read more at philadelphia

Rebecca J. Cole became the second African-American woman doctor in the United States, despite the fact that at that time medicine was not for everyone, let alone for Black people, due to racial barriers. Talented in her field, she went down in history as a reformer and organization founder.

Rebecca J. Cole’s childhood and adolescence 

Rebecca J. Cole was born on March 16, 1846 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. The Cole family was a large family of five children, and Rebecca was the second of them. There is no specific information about the girl’s parents. They were probably quite wealthy in Philadelphia, as they were able to provide all their children with a decent education. 

It was a rare thing back then. Most of them were engaged in hard physical labor, which was also poorly paid, or worked as servants for wealthy families. But in the case of the Coles, things are different. All the children, without exception, have taken decent positions in the future. Despite racism and other obstacles, Rebecca J. Cole became the second African-American doctor in the history of the United States.

Source: photo by  https://www.pngkit.com/

As we have already mentioned, the Coles received a good education. Rebecca originally attended a college for African-Americans in Philadelphia, the Institute for Colored Youth. It became the first educational institution of its kind in the United States, despite the fact that other similar institutions existed at the time. At the Institute, the girl mastered Latin, mathematics, Greek and other sciences.

The college was intended to provide quality education to African-Americans for further realization in science and pedagogy. But none of these areas involved Rebecca. She decided to connect her life with medicine and did not know how many difficulties she would have to overcome on her way.

Studying at a Women’s Medical College

She entered the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia (today Drexel University College of Medicine, which is a consolidation of two medical schools in the city). At the time, the dean of the Women’s Medical College was Ann Preston, an American physician and activist. She became the first woman to hold such a position in the history of this institution. This allowed Ann to defend the rights of her gender and help women become doctors. 

Under Preston’s guidance, Rebecca Cole successfully completed her studies and received her diploma in 1867. She became the second African-American woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Her graduation thesis was a huge research on the topic The Eye and Its Appendages. 

Ann Preston. Source: photo by thephiladelphiacitizen.org 

It became important to overcome racial barriers, especially in medical education. In college and later in life, the doctor faced racial discrimination, although she studied in a female environment. She experienced it on her way to getting her coveted diploma.

The modern Drexel University College of Medicine has undergone many changes on its way to becoming a university. It used to be two different medical schools. One was The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), and the other was the Hahnemann Medical College. The WMCP was founded in 1850. It was the second medical school in the history of medicine to be attended only by women. Here they received their doctoral degrees.

Source: photo, Drexel University College of Medicine Archives and Special Collections

It was not easy to study there. Female college students were constantly mocked and ridiculed, especially by the male medical staff. Women’s grace was not considered strong enough to withstand all the obstacles of this work.  

However, the majority of women who graduated from the WMCP proved the opposite. Many of them made a huge breakthrough in the medical field, and they are remembered not only as one of the first women doctors, but also as scientists, reformers, founders of medical institutions, practices, treatments, etc. 

Internship at the Elizabeth Blackwell’s Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children

After graduating from college, the internship period began. Rebecca J. Cole attended Elizabeth Blackwell’s New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, the first doctor to receive a medical degree in the United States. She was also the first woman to be listed on the Medical Register of the General Medical Council for the United Kingdom. Mrs. Blackwell’s Infirmary provided emergency medical care in New York. It was actually the only hospital in Lower Manhattan. 

At the Infirmary, Rebecca was assigned to work with tenements. It became a woman doctor’s duty to teach others how to take care of themselves and their children, as well as important elements of hygiene. They were also called the Traveling Physicians. Later, she worked as a nurse. And it remains unknown why such a talented doctor was demoted, or if this was her own decision.

Source: photo, Drexel University College of Medicine Archives and Special Collections

In her autobiographical work, the founder of the Infirmary spoke positively of Cole’s qualities. She remembered Rebecca as a young doctor who diligently performed her duties. Working in New York was not easy. 

Cole practiced medicine for a while in South Carolina, but soon decided to return to Philadelphia, where it all began. In her hometown, she decided to continue her social activism and set up her own medical practice. 

Rebecca J. Cole practiced medicine for more than 50 years, and was dedicated to helping disadvantaged women, children and anyone in need. Not much is known about her personal life. It is not known whether Cole was married, had children, or what happened in the personal life of the African-American fighter for justice. 

Rebecca J. Cole helps disadvantaged women and children

Throughout her life, Rebecca helped disadvantaged and abandoned women. Her compassionate heart saved many souls. In Philadelphia, Cole along with Dr. Charlotte Abbey opened the Women’s Directory Center to provide legal and medical services to women who were left alone or with children. They also helped these mothers learn how to cope on their own and earn money to support their families at the Women’s Directory in Philadelphia. 

Source: photo by thephiladelphiacitizen.org 

At the end of the nineteenth century, she became a domestic supervisor at the Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C. She was described as very responsive and energetic. Rebecca was always happy to help those who really needed it. The doctor defended the rights of the “weaker gender” and all African Americans in the United States. She fought tirelessly for medical education for African American women and their children, as well as for the poor. 

Dr. Rebecca J. Cole died on August 14, 1922, at the age of 76. Cole’s achievements in medicine among the first wave of black women doctors are significant. She proved that expanding rights for African Americans would significantly advance medicine. 

Cole’s debate with Du Bois

In 1899, the work of the American sociologist and socialist W.E.B. Du Bois was published, which forced Cole to publicly argue about the inaccuracy of the information. The Philadelphia Negro claimed that more African Americans die from ignorance and lack of hygiene. 

W.E.B. Du Bois. Source: photo from the Library of Congress

Cole could not stand aside and not comment on these false assumptions. She noted that African-American mortality is primarily due to the fault of white doctors, as they refused to collect medical records of their patients. 

As for protests, Cole often organized them. It was her way of responding to lies and injustice, especially when it came to black people. Sometimes she made her “protests” in writing.