Rebecca Cole, Second African American Woman to Receive a M.D. & Activist
It’s as though society is warping into a plethora of repeated actions and history is on rewind like a broken record player. I would like to introduce you to Rebecca Cole: a physician, activist, and the second African American woman to receive her M.D. degree. Through her 40 year career in the public health field, she did not shy away from advocating for tools, resources, and education and persisted to inspire generations of doctors who focused specifically on black communities.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 16, 1846, Cole was one of five children. There is not much known about her childhood due to the lack of records, but through her census records, it was revealed that her father was a laborer and her mother was a laundress. She received her secondary education from the Institute for Colored Youth and graduated in 1863. After, she went to the New England Female Medical College where she completed her first thesis called “The Eye and Its Appendages” and graduated in 1864. Following her graduation, she became the first formally trained black female doctor and received a second medical degree in 1867 from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Dr Cole then worked at Elizabeth Blackwell’s Infirmary for Women and Children in New York. She used her experiences from there to move to Columbia, South Carolina to practice medicine and return to Philadelphia.
Cole was an advocate for the poor who experienced and suffered health disparities in her community. She made regular check-ins to neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C with a focus on teaching women the importance regarding hygiene for themselves and those around them, especially hygienic care for babies. In 1873, she created the Women’s Directory Center which specialized in providing medical services to the poor women in children with treatments directly in their homes.
In 1876, she was a representative for the Ladies’ Centennial Committee of Philadelphia in which they planned the local celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Although she was a representative, she challenged the Committee’s racial equality when they had asked Cole to form a separate Colored Ladies Subcommittee to support their predominantly white organization. This infuriated Cole, in which she defended and argued that colored women should have the opportunity to work with the overall committee and not in a separate organization. She successfully won her argument, allowing black and white women to work together on the committee.
25 years later, Cole worked with the prominent scholar W.E.B DuBois on his research. He spoke to a woman’s based meeting and discussed his position on black people dying of consumption due to their ignorance of proper hygiene. Cole took offense to this proposition, noting that statistical errors and his testimony that ignorance was the sole cause for the slum’s high death rate was rooted far from the truth. She was very passionate that the problem did not stem from pure ignorance of black people, but mainly the failure of white doctors to treat infected black patients. It was social inequality, not science. The white perception towards black people played a crucial role in the increasing death rates in slum neighborhoods. She challenged discriminatory housing practices and landlords that justified their continued oppression by allowing Black folks to live in unhealthy conditions that made them prone to contagious diseases. Cole was quick to call out physicians on their subtle racism and mandate discussions for those who are fighting against these inequalities.
Later on, Cole joined two generations of black women activists in Washington, DC to organize the National Association of Colored Women in Washington. In this organization, Cole was identified among the elected officers as serving on the Editorial Staff. In 1899, she took the opportunity as the superintendent of the Government House for Children and Old Women that provided medical and legal assistance to the homeless and children.
Cole ended her career in her hometown of Philadelphia. She passed away on August 14, 1922, and was buried at Eden Cemetery.
Her activism sparked conversation in the medical field on a topic that desperately needed to be discussed. While it inspired and motivated generations to pursue their everlasting goals and ambitions, it is crucial to understand that this problem still persists 100+ years later. Regardless of being one of the first African American women to become a physician in a field that lacked women and people of color, she thrived and created a legacy to show the importance of the correspondence between public health and the social aspects of medicine. She remains admirable through her work ethic and brave remarks and actions towards public health statistics and structural inequality in the health field.
by Kelly Nguyen
I chose to write about Rebecca Cole because in a time where black representation is crucial and learning and reading about these pioneers are critical to creating progress in a country where it seems as though we have rewound the time. Despite the doubts and lack of support for women and moreover, people of color, in the 19th century, she went against all odds and fought for what she believed in regardless of consequences. She advocated for proper hygiene healthcare and time and time over, never forgetting the roots she was brought upon and routinely checking in on local neighbors that suffered from unhealthy conditions. It is quite obvious that racial inequality still persists in the healthcare field — people of color are not receiving adequate treatment compared to white people, and it is a topic that is needed to be discussed for the prosperity of all patients. Her advocacy inspired me to research more about her and her determination to challenge the beliefs of the white in issues that persist to this day.
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Moore, Levi. “Dr. Rebecca Cole and Racial Health Disparities in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia.” Hektoen International, 21 June 2019, hekint.org/2019/06/21/dr-rebecca-cole-and-racial-health-disparities-in-nineteenth-century-philadelphia/.’
“Rebecca Cole, Pioneering Doctor.” African American Registry, 29 Dec. 2019, aaregistry.org/story/rebecca-cole-pioneering-doctor/.
Veitenhans, Coley. “Rebecca J. Cole (1846–1922).” Welcome to Blackpast •, 6 Feb. 2020, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/cole-rebecca-j-1846-1922/.
“13 Women in STEM Who Changed the World.” International Women’s Day, https://www.internationalwomensday.com/Activity/7213/13-Women-in-STEM-Who-Changed-the-World/.