The Changing Face of Medicine

The Changing Face of Medicine

Written on 08/30/2023

In 1867, Rebecca J. Cole became the second African American woman to receive an M.D. degree in the United States (Rebecca Crumpler, M.D., graduated from the New England Female Medical College three years earlier, in 1864). Dr. Cole was able to overcome racial and gender barriers to medical education by training in all-female institutions run by women who had been part of the first generation of female physicians graduating mid-century. Dr. Cole graduated from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1867, under the supervision of Ann Preston, the first woman dean of the school, and went to work at Elizabeth Blackwell's New York Infirmary for Women and Children to gain clinical experience.

Although Rebecca Cole practiced medicine for fifty years, few records survive to tell her story, and no images of her remain. Cole was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she attended the Institute for Colored Youth, graduating in 1863. Her medical thesis at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania was titled "The Eye and Its Appendages."

Cole was an advocate for the poor for most of her medical career.  She routinely made house calls where she focused on teaching women the importance of hygiene for themselves, their families, and in particular, their babies.

Cole went on to practice in South Carolina, then returned to Philadelphia, and in 1873 and opened a Women's Directory Center to provide medical and legal services to destitute women and children. In January 1899, she was appointed the superintendent of a home run by the Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C.

" A subsequent report noted that: "Dr. Cole herself has more than fulfilled the expectations of her friends and colleagues. With a clear and comprehensive view of her whole field of action, she has carried out her plans with the good sense and vigor which are a part of her character."

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