Cole, Rebecca (16 Mar. 1846 - 14 Aug. 1922), physician, organization...

Cole, Rebecca (16 Mar. 1846 - 14 Aug. 1922), physician, organization founder, and social reformer, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the second of five children all listed as “mulatto” in the 1880 U.S. census. Her parents’ names are not known. In 1863 Rebecca completed a rigorous curriculum that included Latin, Greek, and mathematics at the Institute for Colored Youth, an all-black high school.

In 1867 Cole became the first black graduate of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and the second formally trained African American woman physician in the United States. Dr. Ann Preston, the first woman dean of a medical school, served as Cole’s preceptor, overseeing her thesis essay, “The Eye and Its Appendages.” The Women’s Medical College, founded by Quaker abolitionists and temperance reformers in 1850 as the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, was the world’s first medical school for women. By 1900 at least ten African American women had received their medical degrees from the school.

After completion of her MD, Cole was appointed resident physician at the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a New York City hospital founded in 1857 by America’s first woman physician, Elizabeth Blackwell, her sister, the surgeon Emily Blackwell, and Marie Zakrzewska, a German- and American-trained doctor. Cole worked as a “sanitary visitor,” making house calls to families in slum neighborhoods and giving practical advice about prenatal and infant care and basic hygiene.

In the early 1870s Cole practiced medicine for a short time in Columbia, South Carolina, before taking a position as superintendent of the Government House for Children and Old Women in Washington, D.C. She then returned to Philadelphia, serving as superintendent of a shelter for the homeless until 1873, when she co-founded the Women’s Directory Center. The center offered free medical and legal services to poor women, and according to its charter, programs aiding in “the prevention of feticide and infanticide and the evils connected with baby farming by rendering assistance to women in cases of approaching maternity and of desertion or abandonment of mothers and by aiding magistrates and others entrusted with police powers in preventing or punishing [such] crimes” (quoted in Hine, 113).

A sought-after lecturer on public health, Cole boldly countered W.E.B. DU BOIS’s claim that high mortality rates for blacks were due to an ignorance of hygiene. In an article published shortly before the turn of the century in The Woman’s Eye, a clubwoman’s journal, Cole argued that the spread of disease within the African American community was due to the unwillingness of white doctors to take proper medical histories of black patients.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, American medicine had been essentially unregulated. Doctors underwent less training than ministers and did not need a license to practice. Women benefited from the ease with which proprietary medical schools were given charters; between 1860 and 1900, nineteen medical schools for women were founded. During this same period, the number of women physicians rose from fewer than 200 to more than 7000, or around five percent of American doctors (a percentage not surpassed until the 1970s). American women, of course, had long been practicing healing, as had African Americans of both genders. The earliest known African American physician was JAMES DURHAM, a slave born in 1762. The first African American to receive a formal medical degree, JAMES MCCUNE SMITH, did so in Scotland in 1837. Ten years later, David J. Peck became the first black to get an MD from an American medical school.

In 1890, 909 African American physicians were in practice, of these 115 were women, including Rebecca Cole. Beginning with REBECCA LEE CRUMPLER, America’s first black woman doctor, these pioneers comprised one of the earliest groups of African American professional women. Despite the dual barriers of race and gender, many of these women worked outside their private practices in helping underserved populations of women and children and blacks barred from segregated facilities. Often denied privileges at existing institutions, these trailblazers established an array of healthcare institutions. In 1881 Susan Smith McKinney Steward co-founded a black hospital, the Brooklyn Women's Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary. Eight years later, Caroline Still Wiley Anderson, the daughter of abolitionist WILLIAM STILL, co-founded the Berean Manual Training and Industrial School in Philadelphia. After years of treating patients at her home, Matilda Arabella Evans established the first African American hospital in Columbia, South Carolina. Lucy Hughes Brown and Sarah Garland Jones founded black hospitals and training schools in, respectively, Charleston, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. The first woman to practice medicine in Alabama, Hallie Tanner Dillon Johnson, daughter of BENJAMIN TUCKER TANNER and sister of HENRY OSSAWA TANNER, established a dispensary and nurses’ training school while serving as resident physician at Tuskegee Institute.

By the last decades of Cole’s career, however, the number of African American women physicians declined dramatically. The 1920 U.S. census lists only sixty-five African American women physicians. The professionalization and standardization of medicine further marginalized blacks and women, who were generally excluded from key organizations. Coeducation, which resulted in the closure of scores of women’s schools and training facilities, further curbed the number of women physicians and dismantled much of the institutional and intellectual infrastructure that had supported late-nineteenth-century women doctors. Male African American doctors weathered these changes fairly well, as they now had access to a number of black medical schools and hospitals; in 1920 black male doctors numbered 3,885.

In 1922, Rebecca Cole died after fifty years of practicing medicine. Her career and the contributions of the first wave of black women physicians illustrate that had opportunities been available, black women might have further invigorated the practice of medicine with their collaborative and community-based approach to health care.

Further Reading

Hine, Darlene Clark. “Co-Laborers in the Work of the Lord” in Ruth Abrams, ed. "Send Us a Lady Physician": Women Doctors in America (1985).
Wells, Susan. Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth-Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine (2001).

Lisa E. Rivo

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