2023 Distinguished Service Award Recipient: Edith P. Mitchell, MD

Last Updated: Jan 23, 2024

When Edith Mitchell, MD, left her home in rural Tennessee to attend college, she knew she wanted to make a difference, but had no idea where the path would lead.

Decades later, Dr. Mitchell is board certified in internal medicine and medical oncology and the recipient of PAMED’s 2023 Distinguished Service Award. The award recognizes her decades of achievements in medicine. She is currently the Director of the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities for Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson Health, a past member of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Council of Councils, a former advisor on the President’s Cancer Panel, has achieved Master level in the American College of Physicians (ACP); and is one of the few people in the United States who are fellows in the Royal College of Physicians, London (RCP).

Dr. Mitchell was also the first African American female physician to become a Brigadier General, but her journey into the military was unplanned. She met her husband at Tennessee State University where he was in the Air Force ROTC program and required to serve after graduation. After they married, her husband began pursuing his military training and she enrolled in medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University, then called Medical College of Virginia.

It was there that she connected with a physician who encouraged her to apply for a new scholarship the Air Force was introducing and was to give the military two years of service.  She was accepted and, upon completion of her residency, was given a high-profile commission.

Dr. Mitchell said, “I practiced internal medicine for the 89th wing at Andrews Air Force base, which is the squadron assigned to the President of the United States,” says Dr. Mitchell. “And it was so cool! I grew up on a farm in Tennessee and I was now the doctor for people who I had only seen on tv or read about in the news.”

She went on to receive many promotions during her time in the military, working with the National Institute of Health, establishing a variety of cancer research programs for the Air Force, and eventually, outranking her husband.

Just as she began thinking about retiring from the military at the twenty-year mark, Dr. Mitchell was approached about the possibility of becoming a general. The only thing standing in her way was the flight school requirement.

“Most people go to flight school in their early to mid-20s. I was in my 40s with teenage daughters,” shares Dr. Mitchell. “So, with family support, I signed up for flight school. I got my flight wings and my certification in aerospace medicine. And I am the first woman physician to ever become brigadier general in the Air Force.”

After retirement from the Air Force and tenure at the University of Missouri, Dr. Mitchell relocated to Pennsylvania to join the faculty at Thomas Jefferson University.

There she conducts pancreatic cancer research and development of new therapies, as well as serving as the associate director of Diversity Programs for the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Jefferson. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades for her dedication to cancer research, including the American Cancer Society Cancer Control Award in 2009; the National Medical Association Council on Concerns of Women Physicians Pfizer Research Award;  'Physician of the Year' by Cancer Care; and the 2011 Practitioner of the Year Award from the Philadelphia County Medical Society.

In 2012, Dr. Mitchell established the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities within the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson and, in 2016, she was selected as one of 28 cancer experts for Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative.

Originally appointed by President Trump in 2020, Dr. Mitchell recently completed her three-year term on the President’s Cancer Panel in the Biden administration.

“I tell people, I’m not working for a president, I’m working for the people of the United States. If I can give a president something that allows him to understand cancer, to understand what the president needs to do for cancer, I will do that,” she said. “You have to rise above personal issues, political issues, and you’ve got to be able to reach politicians in a way that makes them understand what they need to do. You need to be able to get along with people, to communicate with people, in a way that is relevant to them.”

In November 2022, Thomas Jefferson University sought to celebrate Dr. Mitchell’s incredible history of service, research and care by unveiling her official portrait, making her the first Black woman to receive the honor.

“I don’t see myself as a trailblazer. I see it as doing what I think is important and what I’m able to do,” Dr. Mitchell shares. “I’m looking ahead to see what else I can do. When I meet with medical students, residents, fellows, I tell them to take every opportunity and not be afraid to try new things. Make choices that allow you to do the things you want to do.”

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