Rebecca J. Cole was born on March 16, 1846 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is widely known for her roles as an American physician, social activist, and organizational leader. In 1867, she graduated from medical school as the second African-American female in the United States to become a doctor. She overcame a tremendous amount of racial and gender barriers in her lifetime to provide essential medical services to impoverished women and children in need.
Cole grew up in Philadelphia, and she attended the Institute for Colored Youth, a rigorous high school that was also the first high school in the United States established for African-Americans. Originally founded by a Quaker philanthropist, this school provided a Classical education that included advanced math, sciences, philosophy, social sciences, English, Greek, and Latin.
After graduating from high school in 1863, Cole went on to attend the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (now Drexel University College of Medicine). Also founded by Quakers, the Woman’s Medical College was the second medical institution in the world to train female physicians. While studying here, Cole’s graduate thesis focused on the eye and its related appendages. Cole worked under the supervision of Ann Preston, the first female dean of the Medical College.
After graduating from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1867, Cole accepted an internship at Elizabeth Blackwell’s New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. She was chiefly responsible for teaching prenatal care and personal hygiene to women living in New York tenements, and she was committed to providing accessible healthcare for women and children in poverty. She later practiced medicine in South Carolina and then in Philadelphia, where she opened a center that provided legal and medical services to poor women and children.
In 1899, she assumed the role of superintendent of a home operated by the Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C. A report from this organization noted that Cole’s “good sense and vigor,” “cheerful optimism,” and “determination to see the best in every situation and in every individual” had a major impact on the culture of the establishment.
Cole practiced medicine for fifty years, changing the lives of thousands of women and children along the way. She died in 1922, and she is buried in Collingdale, Pennsylvania. She was posthumously honored as part of the Innovators Walk of Fame by the University City Science.