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."
In her autobiography, Blackwell commented on Rebecca Cole's valuable clinical skills: "In addition to the usual departments of hospital and dispensary practice, which included the visiting of poor patients at their own homes, we established a sanitary visitor. This post was filled by one of our assistant physicians, whose special duty it was to give simple, practical instruction to poor mothers on the management of infants and the preservation of the health of their families. An intelligent young coloured physician, Dr. Cole, who was one of our resident assistants, carried on this work with tact and care. Experience of its results serve to show that the establishment of such a department would be a valuable addition to every hospital."
Cole went on to practice in South Carolina, then returned to Philadelphia, and in 1873 opened a Women's Directory Center to provide medical and legal services to destitute women and children. In January 1899, she was appointed superintendent of a home run by the Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C. The annual report for that year reported that she possessed "all the qualities essential to such a position ability, energy, experience, tact." A subsequent report noted that: "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."