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From the collections: Dr. Rebecca Cole

Rebecca Cole's thesis, the Eye and Its Appendages. (The Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Not infrequently, we find a certain synchronicity about research requests; often, a collection or individual that might have been under the radar suddenly becomes the subject of several similar avenues of inquiry in a remarkably short span of time. We had a flurry of activity around our American Women's Hospitals collection (collection description and digital material) for much of last year, and in the past few weeks we have experienced something similar regarding Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania graduate Rebecca Cole.

As mentioned in passing in the entry on Eliza Grier, Cole was the second African-American woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. Unlike Grier, Cole lived a long life and practiced medicine for more than fifty years – yet we have remarkably little first-hand information about her. In our collection, we do have her 1867 thesis: 'The Eye and its Appendages' (cover pictured here) and a mention in passing in some 1906 correspondence between Clara Marshall, WMC dean at the time, and W.E.B. DuBois.

We had been doing a bit of research on Rebecca Cole on our end for a project related to our new building; shortly after beginning to look around here, we started receiving related reference requests (and please keep them coming!) – somehow, everyone's timing has been perfect. As a result, we've been able to cobble together some links to other resources regarding her life.

Prior to attending WMC, Rebecca Cole graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University) in 1863. After receiving her medical degree, she moved to New York, where she became a 'sanitary visitor' for the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, working under Elizabeth Blackwell. She later moved on to South Carolina, but returned to Philadelphia where she partnered with Dr. Charlotte Abbey (WMC 1887) to start the Physician Woman's Directory in 1894. The Directory was established (according to Abbey in A Child Welfare Symposium from 1915) '...for the purpose of preventing the establishment of a foundling hospital in Philadelphia.' The Directory's aim was to educate and support unmarried mothers (mostly of the 'domestic service or factory class') with the hopes that they could keep their children and referred them to employment situations that supported this goal.

Perhaps as a result of this experience, Cole moved to Washington, DC, where in 1899 she became the Superintendent of the Orphans' Home run by the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children. Her arrival was mentioned in their thirty-seventh annual report:

Dr. Cole herself has more than fulfilled the expectations of her friends. 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, while her cheerful optimism, her determination to see the best in every situation and in every individual, have created around her an atmosphere of sunshine that adds to the happiness and well being of every member of the large family.

The report is from the Daniel A. P. Murray Pamphlet Collection at the Library of Congress. It seems Cole remained in Washington, DC until her death in 1922 - but unfortunately there are no known photographs of her.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper illustration

It is possible this 1870 engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper does, indeed, feature Cole (in shadow, left-hand corner of the picture); the accompanying text says:

"...every face is a more or less carefully elaborated portrait- not from photographs, but as they appeared, intent upon the lecture, to the artists eye. The ages of the scholars may also be approximately surmised, and their degree of intelligence and enthusiasm. Among them will be noticed the dark-skinned, but intelligent and intellectual features of the young lady who graduated during the past month, and who, in addition to other distinctions, possesses that of being the first colored female graduated doctoress in America, or perhaps the world."

(Thanks to Diana Carey at Schlesinger Library for the quotation and for details on the image.)

While we now know that Cole was in fact the second (after Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864), that only became apparent in the 1940s - so it's entirely possible that Cole was sitting in on anatomy lectures in New York as part of her work at the New York Infirmary. (You may be able to tell we've gone back and forth on this one). It's entirely possible there are photos of her as well, as yet undiscovered - perhaps some day a processing project in the DC area will hit paydirt in that regard.

Here are some other links Rebecca Cole researchers may find of interest:
Changing the Face of Medicine
(National Library of Medicine)
The Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs
Schlesinger Library - Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

And a few published references that mention Cole (copies of which are available in our archives, atlhough not online):
Brown, Sara W. "Colored Women Physicians." Southern Workman, 52:12 (December 1923) 580-593.

"Dr. Rebecca Lee, First Negro Woman Medical Graduate." Bulletin, Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia, Inc., 41:1 (January 1949).