Preston, Ann (1813–1872)

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Preston, Ann (1813–1872)

American physician and educator. Born on December 1, 1813, in West Grove, Pennsylvania; died on April 18, 1872, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; daughter of Amos Preston (a Quaker minister) and Margaret (Smith) Preston; Female Medical College (later Woman's Medical College of Philadelphia), M.D., 1851; never married; no children.

Received medical degree (1851); became professor of physiology (1855); founded Woman's Hospital in Philadelphia (1861); started a nursing school (1863); appointed dean of the Woman's Medical College (1866).

Ann Preston was born on December 1, 1813, in West Grove, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, the second of nine children of Margaret Smith Preston and Amos Preston, a minister influential in a Quaker community known for its progressive ideas and intolerance toward oppression. Both parents were involved in the abolitionist movement and women's rights, and Lucretia Mott was a family friend. The Preston home often served as a refuge for runaway slaves. On one occasion, when Preston heard that slave-catchers were approaching the house, she escorted an escaped slave dressed in Quaker clothes and a heavy veil past the raiding party to safety.

Ann attended the local Quaker school and then a Friends (Quaker-based) boarding school in Chester, Pennsylvania. But because of her mother's poor health, Preston left school and returned home to care for the household and her younger brothers. It has been suggested that the childhood deaths of her two younger sisters, combined with the increasing invalidism she witnessed in her mother, had a profound impact on Preston and her later medical career, for she was able to contrast their poor health with the excellent health of her six brothers, all of whom spent much time working outdoors. Around this time Preston also became an active member of the local Clarkson Anti-Slavery Society and of the temperance movement. As her brothers grew and her responsibilities at home lessened, she taught school and in 1849 published a book of children's rhymes, Cousin Anne's Stories. She also studied several subjects on her own, including Latin, and attended programs at the local literary association, which presented such well-known speakers as Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony , James Russell Lowell, and Wendell Phillips.

Perhaps in combination with her involvement with the temperance movement, Preston's acute awareness of the unhealthy lifestyle of women in her social class, who were encouraged to remain within their homes, refrain from exercise, and avoid straining their brains with challenging education, sparked her interest in human physiology. She was particularly interested in female physiology, and in the early 1840s began teaching physiology and hygiene to women. With the influence and support of her Quaker community, Preston was encouraged to obtain a medical education. In 1847, she became a medical apprentice to Dr. Nathaniel R. Mosely in Philadelphia. After a two-year apprenticeship, she applied to all four of the medical colleges in Philadelphia and was refused admission based on gender. Around this time William T. Mullen, a young man whose background in both business and medicine allowed him to recognize the growing interest among women in studying medicine, began to plan a medical school for women. In March 1850, a group of Quakers headed by Mullen founded the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania (later called the Woman's Medical College). The following autumn, as she was about to turn 37, Ann Preston, along with seven other women including Hannah E. Longshore , entered the first class at the Female Medical College. She argued in her thesis against the common practices of purging and bloodletting, and advanced ideas about psychosomatic illness. These same eight women comprised the first graduating class of the college, on December 31, 1851. An unprecedented event, and one that aroused much ire, the commencement was mobbed by over 500 male medical students, and 50 Philadelphia policemen were needed to protect the safety of the graduates. By the time Preston died, less than 20 years later, more than 130 women had graduated from the Female Medical College.

Preston spent the year following her graduation in post-graduate work, and in 1853 was appointed professor of physiology and hygiene at the Female Medical College. The college became extremely successful, and other medical colleges, among them Penn Medical School, began admitting women into their programs. The number of practicing female physicians in Philadelphia increased dramatically, and many of these developed successful private practices. In reaction, the all-male board of censors of the Philadelphia Medical Society formally blacklisted all female doctors in 1858, barring them from treating patients or instructing students at public teaching clinics and from joining local medical societies. The following year, the Pennsylvania State Medical Society declared that its members were forbidden any interaction with female medical graduates. Consequently, Preston's (and other women doctors') patients could not be admitted to the local hospitals, and her students could not receive clinical experience at the local hospitals. Faced with this lack of support from the existing medical establishment, Preston organized a group of women and raised funds to found the Women's Hospital in 1861. The hospital was, essentially, an extension of the college, so that students could obtain clinical instruction.

The start of the Civil War in 1861 forced the closing of the Female Medical College, but the hospital was opened nonetheless. Preston also went ahead with her plan to send Dr. Emeline Horton Cleveland , an anatomist, to study at the School of Obstetrics at the Maternité of Paris. When Cleveland returned to Philadelphia, she was made chief resident of the new hospital, which was also staffed with several men from the original faculty of the medical college and four female graduates. In 1862, the Female Medical College was rechartered and opened as the Woman's Medical College, and the following year Preston started a nursing school. In 1866, she was made dean of the Woman's Medical College, becoming the first woman so appointed both at that school and at any medical school in the United States. As dean, Preston began to fight against the legislation that had been passed by the Pennsylvania State Medical Society in 1859. Her formal appeal was ignored, as was a second one sent the next year, before the society finally issued a manifesto listing all the arguments for keeping women out of medicine, including frailty, the neglect of the home, and the awkwardness of attending to someone of the opposite gender. Preston responded with an article, published in the Medical and Surgical Reporter of May 4, 1867, that blasted the society's narrow-minded reasoning. The following year, her students were finally allowed to enter the general clinics at the Philadelphia Hospital, although not without a great deal of dissent. One of the major points of protest was the fact that men and women would be educated together. Preston's composed and articulate reply, published on November 15, 1869, in the Philadelphia newspapers, is still considered a classic argument in favor of women in medicine.

Preston remained dean and professor of physiology at the Woman's Medical College until her death on April 18, 1872, at the age of 58; she had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for many years. She left all her medical instruments and medical books to the college, as well as a $4,000 endowment for a scholarship. It was not until 1888, 16 years later, that the first woman was admitted to the Philadelphia Medical Society. For that recognition of her status, she could thank in large part the commitment to women's education and the perseverance of Ann Preston.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Magill, Frank, ed. Great Lives from History: American Women Series. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1995.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Uglow, Jennifer S., comp. and ed. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1985.

suggested reading:

Alsop, Gulielma Fell. History of the Woman's Medical College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1850–1950. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1950.

Lerner, Gerda . The Female Experience: An American Documentary. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.

Lopate, Carol. Women in Medicine. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968.

Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Walsh, Mary Roth. "Doctors Wanted: No Women Need Apply": Sexual Barriers in the Medical Profession, 1835–1975. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.


Correspondence, lectures, articles, and other memorabilia by Ann Preston are located in the library of the Woman's Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Christine Miner Miner , freelance writer, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Preston, Ann (1813–1872)

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