Sue Young Histories

Rebecca Cole 1846 - 1922

September 06, 2007

rebecca coleRebecca J. Cole 1846 - 1922 was an American physician. In 1867, she became the second African American woman to become a doctor in the United States after Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s achievement three years earlier.

Dr. Rebecca J. Cole was the second African American women in the United States to receive a medical degree, and she trained at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, a homeopathic institution established by Constantine Herring in 1848 and which still offers homeopathic education today.

Cole worked under Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (the first woman doctor) focusing on poverty and urban overcrowding. Cole spent 50 years in medicine and social activism. She was the founder and operator of the Woman’s Directory, a Philadelphia institution which offered “medical legal aid to women.” She also founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896.

Sadly, as is the case with many records of the achievements of African Americans of her generation, no images have survived of Dr. Rebecca J. Cole. She was the second African American woman to receive an M.D. degree in the United States, in 1867. Rebecca Cole was born and raised in Philadelphia. She completed her secondary education at the first co-educational high school for African Americans in the city. She enrolled at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania near the end of the Civil War. She trained with Dr. Ann Preston, the first woman dean of the school, and in 1867, was the first African American to graduate.

Dr. Cole, like many of her fellow women students of medicine was able to continue her training by joining an institution founded for women patients and practitioners. To gain clinical experience, she took a job at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, established by physicians Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily, with the help of Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell assigned Dr. Cole the role of health visitor in the local community. She was responsible for dispensing practical advice to mothers living in poverty about the best ways to keep their families healthy. Dr. Blackwell thought Dr. Cole had the ideal character for such work, and mentioned in her autobiography that she had “carried on this work with tact and care.”

Dr. Rebecca Cole practiced in South Carolina for a number of years, before returning to Philadelphia. In 1873, she opened a Women’s Directory Center to provide medical and legal services to women and children in need. In January 1899, Dr. Cole was appointed superintendent of a home in Washington, D.C. run by the Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children. In her years of caring for families living interrible poverty in the city of Washington, she was most appreciated for the difference she was able to make.

As mentioned in one of the annual reports from the association:“Dr. Cole herself has more than fulfilled the expectations of her friends. With a clear and comprehensive view of her wholefield of action, she has carried out her plans with the good sense and vigor which are a part of her character.”