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Ceasing to Blush


Dr. Ann PrestonBigots are always their own worst enemies. In 1861, they married the cause of slavery—an ancient, constitutionally protected institution—to secession. Dumb.

In the early 1960s, they turned fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators while TV cameras were watching. Dumb.

And, in 1869, they were dumb again. That was the year in which 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.”

Even in that misogynistic era, one didn’t publicly insult or throw rocks at women. The incident discredited the most outspoken opponents of woman physicians and helped stiffen the spines of their supporters. And today? Women applicants to U.S. medical schools slightly outnumber men.

For the Woman’s Medical College, “Preston exemplified woman as leader,” wrote Stephen Jay Peitzman, author of A New and Untried Course. “Nothing appeared in the college’s promotional literature more often than images of Preston, into which the viewer imaginatively reads strength and resolve.”

The youngest of nine children born to Quaker farmers Amos and Margaret (Smith) Preston, Ann Preston grew up at Prestonville, a London Grove farm purchased in 1785 by her grandfather. She attended a neighborhood school and, briefly, a boarding school in West Chester. But after her mother sickened, Preston became her nurse and inherited the chores that came with helping raise six older brothers. “Nothing from the first 37 years of Ann Preston’s life suggests that she was interested in medicine, let alone that she would become dean of a medical school,” wrote historian Susan Wells.

Nothing outwardly, that is. Inwardly, Preston couldn’t miss that—besides a chronically ill mother—her family had included three daughters. Both of her sisters died in childhood, though all of her brothers survived. Later, Preston would connect female mortality to sedentary, indoor occupations and restrictive clothing.

Preston’s early letters reveal her interest in literature, current events and politics, fed by the local Farmers’ Library, a lyceum visited by famous speakers and a literary society. “Every American female has and should feel a deep interest in the welfare of her country,” wrote Preston to friend Hannah Darlington in 1835. “If she feels no interest in the perpetuation and perfection of republican freedom, half of the support of our government is lost.”

By modern standards, the Prestons trended left. When an 1827 schism divided area Quakers, the family went with the liberal Hicksites, who emphasized continuing revelation over the Bible. The Prestons were abolitionists, and their daughter came early to that cause. What’s telling is that Preston joined the Clarkson Anti-Slavery Society, a Quaker organization based in Chester and Lancaster counties that accepted men and women on an equal basis. Most anti-slavery organizations accepted only men, requiring women to observe from the sidelines.

The Clarkson group was radical in other ways. In 1840, it vehemently criticized a proposal by the older Chester County Abolitionist Society that every black male pay a head tax to “finance the passage of free Negroes to Liberia.” Hypocrisy, thundered the Clarksonites, whose letters-to-the-editor condemned the “pretended compassion” of those who were “as bad as the slaveholders.”

As Clarkson secretary, Preston was responsible for writing and distributing such statements. She also circulated a petition against capital punishment and agitated on behalf of an anti-tavern bill that, she hoped, would “let the rum sellers feel insecure in their nefarious business.”

In 1838, Preston went to Philadelphia with friends for dedication ceremonies at Pennsylvania Hall, a new anti-slavery meeting place on Sixth Street. Instead, she witnessed the its destruction by a pro-slavery mob. Preston described the event as an “awful and grand spectacle,” but not a discouraging one. “I have heard of some abolitionists whose faith has been shaken by recent events, but I have met with none such,” she wrote to Darlington.

Preston’s poem, “The Burning of Pennsylvania Hall,” was chosen from among several hundred to be published in a book about the event:

“Oh! Slavery’s form that hour was seen / Polluting all our air / Its fearful front and fiendish mien / And twining chains were bare / And well that hall, in freedom’s name / Hath spoken out with words of flame!”

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After her siblings grew up, Preston taught school and wrote rhymed tales for children, published as Cousin Ann’s Stories in 1849. Most taught simple morals such as neatness and kindness. But others emphasized temperance or anti-slavery ideas. In “Howard and His Squirrel,” a boy frees a caged pet:

“But Howard thought he should not like / a little slave to be / and God had made the nimble squirrel / to run and climb the tree.”

Never married, Preston may initially have been attracted to political activity out of boredom. Many of her early letters are laments to friends who’d married and no longer had time for her. “I always had an idea that when persons got married, they changed,” Preston wrote in 1833 to Hannah Monaghan Darlington, who’d found a husband and moved to Kennett Square. “That instead of the noble, generous feelings of earlier times, they became selfish and contracted, and loved nothing outside their own doors.”

But by 1843, she was the busy one: “How I wish thee was an abolitionist,” she wrote to Lavinia Passmore, another girlhood friend. “I should then get to see thee at least at anti-slavery meetings.”

In 1847, encouraged by Philadelphia Quakers interested in medical education for women, Preston 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.

Meanwhile, local physicians and philanthropists had been busily organizing the Female Medical College. Among them was Dr. Joseph S. Longshore, a Quaker obstetrician who thought it simply wrong that women should be ignorant of their own bodies. Galvanized by the 1848 graduation of Elizabeth Blackwell from a medical school in Syracuse, N.Y., Longshore and his allies submitted incorporation papers to the state legislature, which approved them in March 1850.

In August, the founders rented space on Arch Street and began to recruit 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. She predicted the school’s success, despite constant obstacles.

“There is a considerable and increasing apparatus, and the professors have their hearts in their business,” she wrote to Darlington. “But Dr. Moseley was lately proposed as an honorary member of the Philadelphia Medical Society solely, as it appears, for the purpose of blackballing him, which was done as a gratuitous insult because of his connection with a female college.”

Having previously studied with Moseley, Preston graduated with the first class. She spent a year in Paris, studying obstetrics at the Maternite Hospital and, on her return, was hired to be the college’s professor of physiology and hygiene. In 1866, she was named dean of the college faculty, a position she held until her death.

Simultaneously, Preston maintained a medical practice and made house calls. “I called on Mrs. Lane in a splendid house in Girard Street,” she wrote Darlington in 1854. “And only a few rods distant in an alley forlorn and filthy, I called on Mrs. Robinson, a poor patient, my wash woman. Ah, what suffering and poverty there is in this city!”

Preston’s students needed such experience, but all city hospitals were closed to them. So Preston founded a new one. She targeted a site facing Girard College, then undertook the fundraising herself. She walked door-to-door in the city, then borrowed a buggy and drove farm-to-farm in Bucks, Chester and Montgomery counties. “Slowly, the money trickled in,” wrote Bacon. “One wonderful day, 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.”

Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia opened in 1862. Feeling threatened, the Philadelphia Medical Society in 1867 forbade its members from consulting with any woman physician. “It is sufficient to allude merely to the embarrassments which would be encountered on both sides in her visiting and prescribing for persons of the opposite sex,” read the society’s resolution. “Will woman gain by ceasing to blush while discussing every topic?”

In a biting reply, Preston noted that women had already seen it all. In every society through time, she wrote, they tended every cradle and sickbed “with a power of sustained endurance that man does not claim to possess.”

Woman’s Medical Hospital merged with West Philadelphia Hospital for Women in 1929, and with the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in 1964. Female Medical College became the Woman’s Medical College in 1867, the Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1970 and, in 1993, merged with Hahnemann University as MCP Hahnemann School of Medicine. Since 2002, it has been part of the Drexel School of Medicine.

Preston remained the hero of Woman’s Medical College long after her death. In the early 20th century, an 1889 graduate who never knew Preston personally 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 forced 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.

Mark Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.

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