Thomas Jefferson University mourns the passing of ‘trailblazing’ health equity advocate Dr. Edith P. Mitchell

For three decades, Mitchell worked to eliminate health disparities and barriers to care.

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Dr. Edith Mitchell

Dr. Edith Mitchell (Courtesy of Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University)

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Edith P. Mitchell, a longtime Thomas Jefferson University Health faculty member renowned for her advocacy work on health equity issues, has died.

On Monday, Joseph G. Cacchione, Jefferson’s CEO, and Patricia D. Wellenbach, Chairwoman of Jefferson’s Board of Trustees, said in a statement, “Our hearts are heavy today as we mourn the loss of Edith P. Mitchell, MD, MACP, FCCP, FRCP (London).”

Mitchell held many positions with Jefferson Health over the years, including the director of the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities, a professor of Medicine and Medical Oncology, and the enterprise vice president for Cancer Disparities at Jefferson Health’s Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center.

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Mitchell devoted her life to “eliminating barriers to care, especially those related to racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities and the social determinants of health,” said Cacchione and Wellenbach.

Mitchell was also remembered for receiving high honors and achievements throughout her life.

“She had a life full of accomplishments and trailblazing,” Cacchione and Wellenbach said.

Originally from Brownsville, Tennessee, Mitchell’s journey began at Tennessee State University, where she met her future husband, who was enrolled in the Air Force ROTC training. She later enrolled in medical school at the Medical College of Virginia, now Virginia Commonwealth University. She then applied for a scholarship in the United States Air Force and enlisted after her residency.

Mitchell served in the Air Force for the next 36 years. She eventually became the first female physician to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the history of the U.S. Air Force.

As a young physician in training, Mitchell had witnessed the beginnings of desegregation in hospitals in the South, and she saw the difference it made. “Nursing staff integrated, so they could work on any ward,” Mitchell told WHYY’s The Pulse in 2018. “Black doctors were given medical privileges, so that they could admit and take care of their patients in those hospitals, it was just amazing.” And she was determined to keep pushing for equity in access and treatment.

After retiring from the Air Force, she moved to Pennsylvania to join Thomas Jefferson University as a faculty in 1995. She spent the majority of her tenure pioneering the development of new therapies for pancreatic cancer research, and served as the associate director of Diversity Programs for the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Jefferson.

In 2012, she formed the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. She was also chosen as one of the 28 cancer experts for then Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative.

“She brought awareness of racial disparities and the need for inclusiveness to the attention of our community,” said Peter J. O’Dwyer and Mitchell Schnall of ECOG-ACRIN Cancer Research Group. Mitchell was responsible for developing a Health Disparities Committee at ECOG.

In a joint statement, the company’s co-chairs said that despite working in government agencies and advising Presidents, Mitchell never lost sight of what was most important to her – broadening awareness for equity and representation.

“She spent countless hours reaching out to disparate communities to bring patients to state-of-the-art prevention and screening trials, especially in breast and prostate cancers,” they said.

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Mitchell was also outspoken about the lack of diversity in clinical trials, an issue she was determined to help fix.

“She worked with the National Medical Association to broaden participation of Black physicians and patients in cancer trials,” said O’Dwyer and Schnall.

In 2023, Mitchell received the Distinguished Service Award from the Pennsylvania Medical Society for decades of achievements in medicine.

In a statement, she said, “I don’t see myself as a trailblazer,” while accepting the award.

“I see it as doing what I think is important and what I’m able to do,” she said. “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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