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Ann Preston - Pioneer Woman Doctor

One of the most notable achievements of the Religious Society of Friends in the 19th century was the role it played in the entrance of women into medicine


Among those pioneer Quaker women doctors, none was more valiant and important than Ann Preston, the founder of Woman's Hospital.

For the first half of the century all medical schools uniformly refused to accept 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 read medicine in the offices of family friends and could not gain M.D. status.

In 1850 a group of Philadelphia businessmen, under the leadership of Quaker William Mullen, organized the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, the first such institution in the world. Classes began in October in a building at 227 Arch Street with eight women, five of them Quaker including Ann Preston, enrolled for the degree of Doctor of Medicine and another 32 as "listeners."

The first year the faculty of the Female Medical College was all male, but in 1851 Hannah Longshore, who had been tutored in medicine before her enrollment, was selected as a demonstrator in anatomy and was listed as a faculty member. In 1853 her classmate Ann Preston was appointed professor of hygiene and physiology.

Ann Preston was a birthright Friend. Born in 1813 in West Grove, Pennsylvania, the oldest daughter and second of nine children of Amos Preston, a Quaker minister, and Margaret Smith Preston, his wife, she grew up in a closely knit Quaker family revolving around the West Grove Meeting. Her parents were abolitionists and supporters of the women's rights movement. The famous Quaker minister Lucretia Mott was a friend of the Prestons and often visited them.

Ann Preston attended a Quaker school in West Grove and later a Quaker boarding school in West Chester. Needed at home because of the ill health of her mother, Ann joined the Clarkson Anti-Slavery Society and was active in the temperance movement. She also attended meetings of the local literary society and lyceum, where such poets as James Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier came to speak, and began herself to write essays and poetry. After her younger siblings grew up she taught school and wrote a volume of rhymed tales for children, published as Cousin Ann's Stories in 1849.

Although Ann had two sisters, one died in infancy and the other in girlhood, while all six brothers survived. Ann began to notice that girls were restricted to sedentary and indoor occupations, dressed in tightly bound clothes. Ann Preston came to feel that women needed to know more about their own physiology. She decided to study the subject and to teach hygiene to local classes of women and girls. Encouraged by Philadelphia Quakers, who were becoming interested in medical education for women, in 1847 Ann enrolled herself as an apprentice in the office of Dr. Nathaniel R. Moseley. After two years of apprenticeship she applied to medical colleges but was turned down because of her gender.

The creation of the Philadelphia Female Medical College changed all this. Entering in 1850 and joining the faculty in 1853, Ann spent the rest of her life in service of women in medicine. In 1866 she became dean of the college, the first woman to hold this post. 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 medical missionaries. Some of the women who audited the courses gave lectures on physiology and hygiene to women in the poorest sections of the city, thus pioneering medical outreach as a branch of social work. One of these was Sarah Mapps Douglass, an African American teacher and Friend.

When the all-male medical society banned women from the public teaching clinics in 1858, Ann decided to fight. In her valedictory address to the graduating class she spoke of the prejudice against women doctors:
No lordly Turk, smoking on his ottoman, could better depict the depravation which public manners would suffer, if Turkish women should openly walk, side by side with fathers, husbands, and brothers to the solemn Mosque, than some among us have portrayed the perversion our society must undergo if woman shares with man the office of Physician.

From the beginning Ann Preston had dreamed of founding a woman's hospital so that women medical students could gain clinical experience, as well as to help poor women who were in need of care. In the founding of the Female Medical College the board had been made up entirely of men. Why not have a board of "Lady Managers"? Ann asked herself. In 1858 she organized such a board and began in earnest to plan for the establishment of the hospital.

The quarters of the Medical College on Arch Street were too crowded to add a hospital wing, and it was therefore necessary to find a new location. Ann searched the streets of Philadelphia until she found an appropriate site in the north section of the city, on College Avenue, facing the open fields of Girard College. But to buy such a site meant raising money. Ann Preston undertook this task herself, walk- ing from door to door to solicit funds. The supporters of the college were generous but had already given as much as they could afford to start the experiment in medical education for women. Other wealthy Philadelphians objected to women doctors. When she had been canvassing Philadelphia for almost three years, the Civil War began, and the Female Medical College had to close. It looked as though she would never succeed.

Ann nevertheless raised enough money to send a colleague and dear friend, Dr. Emmeline Horton Cleveland, to Paris to study obstetrics so that she could be the resident physician in the new hospital. When there was still not enough money in the coffers, Ann 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. One wonderful dav a farmer gave her the last hundred dollars she needed, and she drove back to the city thanking God for the fulfillment of her dream.

The Woman's Hospital opened its doors in 1862 at North College Avenue. That same year Ann Preston persuaded the board of the Female Medical College to reopen that institution, renting rooms from the new hospital on North College Avenue. Starting with only three women doctors on the faculty and 20 students enrolled, the college began to grow and prosper. Soon many eminent physicians, male and female, were among its teaching staff. It remained on College Avenue until 1929, when it moved to a larger location on Henry Avenue. When many small medical colleges were closed because of the introduction of higher standards in medical training, it survived and became a famous teaching institution. In 1863 the college began to train nurses, one of the first institutions in the United States to do so. In 1870 it sent the first women to serve as medical missionaries to Asia.

While she had achieved her goal of establishing a woman's hospital, Ann Preston felt she needed the right to take her female medical students into the larger, all-purpose clinics and hospitals of Philadelphia so they might learn to deal with a great variety of medical conditions. At first all the hospitals barred the "lady doctors," but in 1868 Ann Preston won the right of her students to attend the teaching clinics at Blockley and in 1869 at Pennsylvania 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. Some even squirted tobacco juice on the women's clothes. The female medical students remained composed and attended the clinic, but on their way out they were pelted with rocks.

Following this ugly 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."

Ann Preston protested this decision and carried her battle to the press, stating publicly that "Wherever it is proper to introduce women as patients, there also it is but just and in accordance with the instincts of truest womanhood for women to appear as physicians and students." Because of the publicity following the behavior of the medical students and Ann Preston's protest, public opinion began to swing in favor of the education of women doctors.

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 despite opposition and sharing with them her serene faith:

Well may we rely trustingly upon the serene forces of the universe, feeling that nature and the divine fitness of things are on our side--that "our allies are exultations, agonies, and man's unconquerable mind," and God's eternal providence.

Ann Preston died in 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. Six years later, her friend Emmeline Cleveland died and was buried next to her, as she had requested. (Later both bodies were moved.) Ann left her instruments and her life savings to her beloved college for a scholarship.

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. For a while it was operated as a nursing home named for Sara Allen, the wife of Richard Allen, the founder of Mother Bethel Church. When this venture failed, the building became derelict. But today it has been rehabilitated by a Quaker group, Friends Rehabilitation Corporation, as housing for elderly people and homeless women. Ann would surely approve.

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