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Edith P. Mitchell, health-care trailblazer, civil rights pioneer, and retired Air Force brigadier general, has died at 76

The first female physician to become a brigadier general in the Air Force, she transformed care for disadvantaged cancer patients at Thomas Jefferson University and elsewhere around the country.

Dr. Mitchell became president of the National Medical Association in 2015.
Dr. Mitchell became president of the National Medical Association in 2015.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

Edith P. Mitchell, 76, of Newtown Square, longtime physician, professor, and program director at Thomas Jefferson University, civil rights pioneer, and retired Air Force brigadier general, died Sunday, Jan. 21, at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby. The cause of her death has not been disclosed.

Called a “woman before her time” and a “monumental contributor” to cancer and gastrointestinal research and treatment by colleagues, Dr. Mitchell was also a trailblazing champion for minority health care providers and medically underserved communities in the United States. She evaluated hundreds of new drugs and treatment procedures over her 50-year career in medicine, was a mentor to many, and, closest to her heart, dug deep to understand how disadvantaged patients could be better served.

“We all know that there is not racial equality in this country,” she told The Inquirer in 2015, “and the lack of racial equality extends into health care.”

Dr. Mitchell joined Jefferson in 1995 and served as clinical professor of medicine and medical oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College, and director of the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. She was known for her humility, wit, compassion, and dedication as well as her medical achievements, and colleagues at Jefferson said in a tribute: “Dr. Mitchell’s impact will continue to be seen and known for generations to come.”

Julia A. Haller, chair of the board of trustees of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, noted Dr. Mitchell’s “commanding intellect, integrity, and commitment to our country, our profession, and our society.” Robert Winn, director of the Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an online tribute that she “created a model for a life worth living and inspired us all.”

Dr. Mitchell was past president of the National Medical Association and active with the American Cancer Society, National Institutes of Health, Royal College of Physicians in London, and many other organizations. She earned Jefferson’s 2018 Achievement in Medicine Award and the Pennsylvania Medical Society’s 2023 Distinguished Service Award.

Last year, a worldwide group of cancer research centers renamed its awards for minority trainees the Edith Peterson Mitchell Health Equity Travel Scholarships.

“We don’t use a one-shoe-fits-all theory. All the factors that are social determinants of health have to be addressed.”
Edith P. Mitchell in 2018 on how to improve health care in disadvantaged communities.

Dr. Mitchell enlisted in the Air Force in 1973, became certified in aerospace medicine, and served as a flight surgeon and in other roles during her more than three decades of active and reserve duty. She graduated from the Air War College in 1995 and became the first female physician to attain the Air Force rank of brigadier general in 2001.

She earned more than a dozen medals and ribbons during her time in the service, and worked often later with the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Philadelphia.

Featured many times in The Inquirer, Daily News, and other publications, Dr. Mitchell published more than 100 scholarly articles and book chapters about all sorts of medical subjects, and she spoke often about the inequities that scar the modern medical landscape.

“Most schools in the United States only admit a few underrepresented minorities a year,” she said in 2023. “We’ve got to increase the number of underrepresented individuals in medicine.”

» READ MORE: Dr. Mitchell works to improve diversity in medical schools.

Edith Faye Peterson was born Nov. 20, 1947, in Brownsville, Tenn. She graduated high school as valedictorian, and a local Black doctor who treated her family when white doctors would not inspired her to pursue a career in medicine.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at Tennessee State University in 1969 and a medical degree from the Medical College of Virginia, now Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, in 1974. She met fellow student Delmar Mitchell at Tennessee State, and they married in 1969, and had daughters Dale and DeAnna. Her husband died in 2021.

Before Jefferson, Dr. Mitchell won a 1991 Distinguished Service Award as a professor of medicine at the University of Missouri and was stationed at Air Force bases and hospitals in Maryland, Washington, California, Missouri, and Illinois.

She was an engaging storyteller by all accounts and a celebrated member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She liked to travel when she wasn’t working and tended her vegetable and flower gardens in Newtown Square to unwind.

She listened to jazz music, broke into dance whenever she heard “Shotgun” by Junior Walker and the All Stars, and tuned in as often as she could to watch Dallas on TV. “You have to do things to relax in your life,” she told The Inquirer.

Her daughter DeAnna said: “When she came into a room, she owned it. For many people, she was a superhero, a rock star. For me, she was a nurturer and the voice of reason. No matter where she was or what she was doing, I had her attention. For me, she was just mom.”

In addition to her daughters, Dr. Mitchell is survived by four grandchildren, a sister, and other relatives. Four sisters and a brother died earlier.

Memorial services and interment at Arlington National Cemetery are to be held later.