Cole, Rebecca J. 1846–1922
Rebecca J. Cole 1846–1922
In 1867 Rebecca J. Cole became the second African-American woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. At that time, the field of medicine was almost exclusively the domain of white men. The Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery was barely two years old. African Americans were subjected to intense racism, denied basic rights, and relegated to “separate but equal” status. Cole also suffered the second-class citizenship that 19th century America imposed upon women. Yet, despite this incredible sexism and racism, Cole persevered as a doctor, forging a career that spanned more than 50 years. Along the way she became a tireless advocate for medical rights and access for the poor, particularly for black Americans who were mostly ignored by the white medical world.
Rebecca J. Cole was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 16, 1846. The second of five children, Cole was born into a mulatto family—her ancestry was a mix of European and African. She and her siblings—sisters Sallie and Dora and brothers Hamilton and Joseph—received excellent educations, allowing them to obtain work other than the domestic service or manual labor fields in which most African Americans of that time were employed. Cole in particular excelled in school. She attended the prestigious Institute for Colored Youth located in Philadelphia (now Cheyney University). Established by open-minded Quakers, the school strived to train black youth to become teachers and scholars. It was considered one of the more rigorous of the black schools of the time and its curriculum included Latin, Greek, and mathematics. As a student Cole received a ten dollar award for academic excellence, good conduct, and attendance. This was quite a sum in those days and served as a testament to her intellect.
After graduating in 1863, Cole briefly worked as a teacher before beginning medical school at the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania (currently subsumed under Drexel University). At this time, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote was still over half a century away. Medicine, like many scientific fields, had barely opened its doors to women. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first white American woman to receive an M.D. in the United States, had done so in 1849. Fifteen years later Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African-American woman to graduate from medical school. By enrolling in medical school at this early time, Cole was truly a pioneer. In 1867, during the school’s fifteenth annual commencement, Cole graduated, becoming the first black woman to earn her M.D. from the school. Her senior thesis was titled The Eye and Its Appendages.
Shortly after medical school, Cole moved to New York City and joined the staff of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, a women-owned, women-run hospital founded by Blackwell in 1857. According to Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Blackwell described Cole as “an intelligent young
At a Glance…
Born on March 16, 1846 in Philadelphia, PA; died on August 14, 1922 in Philadelphia, PA. Education: Graduate, Institute of Colored Youth, Philadelphia, PA, 1863; Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, MD, 1867.
Career: Physician, 1867-1922; New York Infirmary for Women and Children, New York, NY, sanitary visitor and resident physician; Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, Washington D.C, superintendent; Women’s Directory, Philadelphia, PA, founder.
Black physician who performed her duties with tact and care.” In 1866 Blackwell instituted the Tenement House Service, which according to We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century “was the earliest practical program of medical social service in the United States.” The service intended to promote health in overcrowded slums, populated by poor—mainly black—people, by sending out a “sanitary visitor” to teach basic hygiene and child care. Cole became one of the first “sanitary visitors” in the program and worked in this capacity for many years. It was a demanding job, considering the rising population of New York City at the time and its attendant rise in poverty.
Some scholars recall the role of the “sanitary visitor” with disdain—an example of the white medical establishment providing little more than rhetoric to the black community rather than true access to medical treatment. Also, the role of “sanitary visitor” was one that could be fulfilled easily by someone with much less education and skill than Cole. A nurse or even a nurse’s aide could provide the basic hygienic education that was the backbone of the service. Whether she was relegated to this role because of her skin color or because she truly desired to provide this service is unclear. However, it is known that Cole remained in her position for several years. It is also clear that the social medicine aspect of the sanitary service appealed to Cole’s desire to make health care available to everyone, particularly the disenfranchised.
After leaving Blackwell’s hospital, Cole landed in Columbia, South Carolina where she practiced medicine briefly before moving on to Washington, D.C. She furthered her commitment to social activism by working as the superintendent of the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, an organization that provided basic necessities such as housing and medicine to poor, homeless black women and children. Cole eventually returned to her native Philadelphia and established a private medical practice. There, along with fellow physician Charlotte Abby, Cole created the “Women’s Directory,” an institution that provided legal and medical aid to poor women and children.
In Philadelphia Cole became active in the African American Women’s Club movement that was burgeoning across the nation. These clubs provided African American women with an outlet for social, philanthropic, and political activity at a time when they were doubly ostracized by society—for being black and for being women. Many of the clubs founded in this era exist today. Others gave rise to powerful national organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women. At the same time, there was a rise in women’s clubs composed of white women. Many of these were focused on the mounting battle for women’s suffrage, others were strictly social. Because of her prominence as a physician and as a public advocate for social medicine, Cole was sought out by these clubs as a representative of the black community. One such incident is highlighted in We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century. Cole was asked by the all-white Ladies’ Centennial Committee of Philadelphia to form a similar committee composed of black women. Cole initially agreed and recruited members. However, when she found out that their work would be limited solely to the black community, she wrote to the local newspaper in protest saying that she and her group “resented being placed in a proscribed light” and declaring that her group would “work in common with American women, not as ‘colored Centennial women.’”
Cole often spoke out in public or in writing to protest what she viewed as injustices or ignorances. In another incident highlighted in We Are Your Sisters, Cole wrote a rebuttal to an allegation made by prominent African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois that African Americans were dying of consumption in large numbers because of their ignorance of hygiene. Having worked for many years in poor, overcrowded African-American neighborhoods, Cole took issue with DuBois and blamed the high rates in large part on overcrowding caused by “soul-less landlords.”
On August 14, 1922, after nearly half a century as a working physician, Cole died. She had fought incredible odds to train and work as a doctor. She had also fought ceaselessly for the medical rights of African Americans, women, children, and the poor. Though little is known about her personal life, it is easy to guess that her commitment to medical access influenced many of her contemporaries. Hopefully, as her story becomes more well known, future generations will also be inspired by her dedication.
Hine, Darlene Clark, editor, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 261-262.
Sterling, Dorothy, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century, pp. 440-441.
African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com
“Rebecca J. Cole,” Princeton University, www.princeton.edu/~mcbrown/display/cole.html
"Cole, Rebecca J. 1846–1922." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cole-rebecca-j-1846-1922
"Cole, Rebecca J. 1846–1922." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved March 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cole-rebecca-j-1846-1922
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