Chester County’s Dr. Ann Preston Led the Way for Female Medical Students

The former dean of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania made her mark in a male-dominated industry.

In 1869, Chester County’s Dr. Ann Preston, dean of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania—the first such institution in the world—led her female students into a lab at Pennsylvania Hospital. The reaction?

“The male medical students shouted insults and threw paper, tinfoil and tobacco quids,” wrote historian Margaret Hope Bacon. “The female medical students remained composed and attended the clinic, but on their way out they were pelted with rocks.”

The youngest of nine children born to Quaker farmers, Preston grew up at Prestonville, a London Grove farm purchased in 1785 by her grandfather. After her mother fell ill, she became her nurse and inherited the chores that came with helping raise six older brothers.

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Both of her sisters died in childhood, though all of her brothers survived. After they grew up, Preston taught school and wrote rhymed tales for children, published as Cousin Ann’s Stories. In 1847, encouraged by Philadelphia Quakers interested in medical education for women, she enrolled as an apprentice in the office of Dr. Nathaniel Moseley. After two years, she applied to medical colleges but was turned down because of her gender.

Ann Preston
See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, local physicians and philanthropists had been organizing the Female Medical College. In August 1850, the founders rented space on Arch Street and began recruiting faculty. Most local physicians refused to have anything to do with this radical new enterprise. By the following January, Preston and 39 other students were immersed in their studies.

Preston graduated first in her class and spent a year in Paris studying obstetrics. When she returned, she was hired to be the college’s professor of physiology and hygiene. In 1866, she was named dean of the faculty. She remained the hero of Woman’s Medical College long after her death in 1872. An 1889 graduate who never knew Preston recalled a cherished institutional memory—“the story of Dr. Ann Preston, the first dean of the college, leading a small group of women medical students in a march down the middle of Chestnut Street protected by the police from a mob of male medical students.”

Pray, sir, that your female physician is thinking of something else at your next prostate exam.

An earlier version of this article ran in our July 2009 issue.

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