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Pioneer physician, Rebecca J. Cole, was born on March 16, 1846, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cole was one of the first African American women to receive a medical degree in the United States.
She was the second of five children and each of the children, who all received an education which allowed them to not work in domestic services or the manual labor fields that most African Americans worked in during that time.
Cole excelled in school and was able to attend the prestigious Institute for Colored Youth, located in Philadelphia (now Cheyney University). The institute was established by Quakers and strived to train Black students to become teachers and scholars. It was considered one of the most rigorous programs at the time and the curriculum included Latin, Greek and mathematics.
In 1864, following her graduation from the Institute, Cole attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMC), which was the first school in the U.S. to award women medical degrees. She graduated in 1867 after completing her thesis, “The Eye and Its Appendages.”
Cole became the first black woman to receive a medical degree from WMC and after, she went to New York to work at Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell’s New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Blackwell was the first white American woman to receive an M.D. in the United States.
The establishment of women’s medical colleges and Black colleges was essential to training and creating successful Black physicians. Prior to Cole, only three years earlier, Rebecca Lee Crumpler received her medical degree from the New England Female Medical College in Boston, and three years after Cole, Susan Smith McKinney received hers from the New York Medical College for Women.
Cole received training from some of the most notable women physicians of her time. The Infirmary she worked at was entirely staffed by women and it provided healthcare, including surgical procedures, to the poor and underserved communities in the city. She briefly moved to South Carolina to practice medicine but returned back to Philadelphia and opened a Women’s Directory Center that provided medical and legal services for poor women and children. Throughout her career, Cole worked in various roles as a physician. She died on August 14, 1922, in her hometown of Philadelphia.
Cole practiced medicine for 50 years, yet there is very little information about her early years or that of her parents and there are no images of her.