First Woman Medical School Dean
Ann Preston (December 1, 1813–April 18, 1872) was a doctor and educator of women in Pennsylvania. One of the most notable achievements of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in the 19th century was the role it played in the entrance of women into medicine. Ann Preston was one of those pioneer Quaker women doctors.
Through her leadership and her persuasive influence, Dr. Preston promoted educational, professional and social changes that eventually established the right of women to study medicine and removed the barriers which blocked the path of those women who aspired to become competent and successful physicians.
Ann Preston was born on December 1, 1813 in West Grove, Pennsylvania, Quaker community near Philadelphia. She was the oldest daughter and second of nine children of Quaker minister Amos Preston and Margaret Smith Preston. Of their three daughters, Ann was the only one to survive to adulthood.
Ann grew up in a close knit family revolving around the West Grove Meeting. Her parents were abolitionists and supporters of women’s rights. The famous Quaker minister Lucretia Mott was a friend of the Prestons and often visited them.
Ann was educated at the local Quaker school, then at a boarding school in Chester, Pennsylvania, until she had to return home to care for her family when her mother became ill. To continue her education she attended lectures of the local literary association and lyceum, where such poets as James Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier came to speak, and began to write her own essays and poetry.
Ann also became a member of the temperance movement and the Clarkson Anti-Slavery Society, for which she wrote petitions and lectures. After her younger brothers were old enough to care for themselves, Ann became a teacher, and in 1849 she published a book of children’s rhymes, Cousin Ann’s Stories.
Because girls were restricted to sedentary and indoor activities and dressed in tight clothing, Ann believed that women should know more about their own bodies. After some intense study of those subjects, she began teaching physiology and hygiene to all-female classes.
For the first half of the 19th century all medical schools uniformly refused to admit females. In 1847 Geneva College in New York made a one-time exception for Elizabeth Blackwell, and she became the first American woman doctor. But others who wanted to train were forced to study medicine in the offices of physicians and could not gain the status of ‘medical doctor.’
Encouraged by Philadelphia Quakers who were becoming interested in medical education for women, in 1847 Ann Preston became an apprentice in the office of Dr. Nathaniel Moseley. After two years of medical training under Dr. Moseley, Preston applied to four medical colleges in Philadelphia but her applications were rejected because of her gender.
To provide opportunities for women to study medicine, a group of Quakers founded the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1850 – the first institution in the world established to train women in medicine and offer them the degree of Doctor of Medicine. The first year the faculty of the College was all male, but in 1851 Hannah Longshore was selected as a demonstrator in anatomy and was listed as a faculty member.
Preston enrolled in the first class, graduating in December 1851 at the age of 38. She returned to the college the following year for postgraduate work, then ran a series of lectures on hygiene for women. In 1853 Preston was appointed professor of physiology and hygiene at the Female Medical College, and spent the rest of her life in service of women in medicine.
Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia
In 1857, the Philadelphia Medical Society spoke out against the Female Medical College, effectively barring its women students from educational clinics and medical societies in the city. Undeterred, Dr. Ann Preston organized a board of “lady managers” to fund and run a teaching hospital to care for women, where her students could gain clinical experience.
The area around the Medical College was too crowded to add a hospital wing, and it was therefore necessary to find a new location. But to buy such a site meant raising money. The supporters of the college had already given as much as they could, while other wealthy Philadelphians objected to women doctors. In 1858 Preston began walking from door to door soliciting funds.
During this time, she began to suffer from rheumatic fever and exhaustion, and she was confined to a hospital for three months to recuperate.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), the Medical College was forced to close due to lack of financial support. However, Dr. Preston had raised enough money to send friend and colleague, Dr. Emmeline Horton Cleveland, to Paris to study obstetrics so that she could be the resident physician at the new hospital.
When there was still not enough money in the coffers, Preston borrowed her family’s horse and buggy and began to go from farm to farm in Bucks, Montgomery and Chester Counties, calling on Quaker families and pleading her cause. Her earnestness and faith were deeply moving, and slowly the money trickled in.
In 1861, Preston and her supporters founded the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia to offer medical and surgical care for women by women. Its purposes were to:
establish in the City of Philadelphia a Hospital for the treatment of diseases of women and children, and for obstetrical cases; furnishing at the same time facilities for clinical instruction to women engaged in the study of medicine, and for the practical training of nurses; the chief resident physician to be a woman.
Woman’s Hospital accepted its first patient, to the “Lying In Department (maternity),” on December 16, 1861. By April of 1862, twelve patients occupied beds. The hospital grew steadily; by 1875 it housed 37 beds, treated nearly 2,000 patients at their homes (with visits carried out largely by students), and saw more than 3,000 visitors in its dispensary. Women and children were admitted “without regard to their religious belief, nationality or color.”
After the Female Medical College was re-opened in 1866, student Mary Putnam Jacobi was refused a medical degree by Edwin Fussel, though she met the required qualifications. Most of the faculty, including Preston, disagreed with the decision. Fussell resigned following the incident, and Preston was appointed dean.
Dean of Woman’s Medical College
Dr. Ann Preston served as dean of the college from 1866 through 1872, becoming the first woman dean of an American medical school, a position that allowed her to champion the right of women to become physicians. Under her leadership the college trained the first African American and the first Native American women doctors in the country, as well as the first women medical missionaries to Asia.
The school changed its name to Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1867. Soon many eminent physicians, male and female, were among its teaching staff. When many small medical colleges were forced to close because of the introduction of higher standards in medical training, the College survived. In 1863 the school began to train nurses, one of the first institutions in the United States to do so.
Some of the women who audited the courses at the college gave lectures on physiology and hygiene to women in the poorest sections of the city of Philadelphia, thus pioneering medical outreach as a branch of social work. One of these women was Sarah Mapps Douglass, an African American teacher and Quaker.
While she had achieved her goal of establishing a woman’s hospital, Ann Preston believed that her female medical students deserved the right to attend the larger, all-purpose clinics and hospitals in Philadelphia so they might learn to deal with a greater variety of medical conditions. At first all the hospitals barred “lady doctors.”
However, in 1868 Preston won the right for her students to attend the teaching clinics at Blockley Hospital. When the first women arrived, however, they were met by an angry demonstration. The male medical students shouted insults and threw paper, tinfoil and tobacco quids at the women. The female students remained composed and attended the clinic, but on their way out they were pelted with rocks.
Following this demonstration, the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and of Jefferson Medical College held a meeting attended by representatives of the medical staffs of all the hospitals in Philadelphia to discuss the admission of women medical students and declared themselves to be opposed to the “admixture of the sexes at clinical instruction in medicine and surgery.”
Because of the publicity over the behavior of the male medical students at Blockley and Preston’s protest against it, public opinion began to swing in favor of the education of women doctors. In 1869 she made a similar arrangement with the Pennsylvania Hospital. Dr. Preston accompanied her students to the first clinic and witnessed the harassment by male students firsthand.
In a letter written February 21, 1925, one of Preston’s former students, Sarah Hall, recalled the events that day for the 75th anniversary of the Woman’s Medical College:
We were allowed to enter by way of the back stairs, and were greeted by the men students with hisses and paper wads, and frequently during the clinic were treated to more of the same. The Professor of Surgery came in and bowed to the men only. More hisses… We retired the same way we entered and, on reaching the outer door, found men students lined up on one side of the way, and we, to get out, had to take the road and walk to the street to the tune of ‘The Rogues March.’ Our students separated as soon as possible. All who could took the little antiquated horse cars in any direction they were going. The men separated also, and in groups of twos, threes and fours, followed the women.
By this time Ann Preston was gravely ill, suffering from articular rheumatism. She continued to teach at the college, serving as professor of physiology, and to serve as consulting physician at the Woman’s Hospital, but she had to restrict her private practice to office visits because she could no longer ride out to visit her patients in their homes.
Nevertheless, her spirit remained strong, and she was a constant inspiration to her students. Year after year she addressed the graduating class of the Female Medical College, urging them to continue to practice the highest standards of medical care despite opposition. In 1871 Preston suffered an attack of acute articular rheumatism, which left her in a weakened state.
Dr. Ann Preston died on April 18, 1872 and was buried near her beloved friends Lucretia and James Mott and many other Quaker abolitionists at Fair Hill burial ground in North Philadelphia. Ann left her instruments and her life savings to her beloved college for a scholarship. Six years later, her friend Dr. Emmeline Cleveland died and was buried next to Dr. Preston, as she had requested.
There is a beautiful sequel to Ann Preston’s life. The Woman’s Hospital that she founded flourished on North College Avenue for many years and then was moved to West Philadelphia, where the street facing it was named Preston Street. The neighborhood around it deteriorated, there was less need for a woman’s hospital, and it was abandoned some years ago. However, it has now been rehabilitated by a Quaker group, Friends Rehabilitation Corporation, as housing for elderly and homeless women.