A snapshot biography of Ann Preston

Vintage sepia-toned photograph of Ann Preston, a woman with a middle-parted hairstyle and dark hair pulled back, wearing a high-neck dress with a lace collar, and a delicate necklace. She has a gentle expression, with soft features and eyes gazing directly at the viewer.

When Ann Preston needed to raise money to open a hospital for women, she went door to door, riding on a borrowed horse and buggy. She raised the funds, and the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia opened in 1862. This was Ann, always determined to achieve her goals.

Such perseverance and dedication were necessary for Ann to succeed in medicine, as women were still new to the profession. The first woman to graduate from medical school in the U.S. had only been about a decade prior, in 1849. Many still questioned whether women could do the job. For example, The Medical and Surgical Reporter questioned if women had the “ability to bear up under the bodily and mental strain to which they would be unceasingly subjected in this new vocation.” Ann wrote a response to this comment, saying,

“There are in this city women who have been engaged in the practice of medicine a dozen years, who to-day have more vigor and power of endurance than they possessed in the beginning of their career; and the fact of ‘their delicate organization and predominance of the nervous system,’ combined with their ‘trained self-command,’ is the very reason that, in some cases, their counsel has been preferred to that of the more robust man.”

Suffice it to say, Ann didn’t tolerate the critiques of women in medicine and actively stood up in defense of their participation in the profession.

Ann was born on December 1, 1813, in West Grove, Pennsylvania, into a Quaker family, the second of nine children. Educated in Quaker schools, she became active in the abolition and temperance movements, including hiding slaves fleeing enslavement. Then, she began working life as a teacher and author of stories for children before transitioning to a medical career, as she had taken an interest in learning about and teaching hygiene and physiology.

The transition was challenging. Rejected at first from every medical school to which she applied because of her sex, Ann gained admission to the first class of students at the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. She graduated in 1851 at the age of 38.

From there, Ann’s impact on women’s medicine was profound. In 1858, when the Philadelphia Medical Society barred women physicians from public teaching clinics, she spearheaded fundraising efforts for a women’s hospital affiliated with the college to provide vital clinical experience for students. This hospital opened in 1862. Ann also played a pivotal role in founding a nursing school in 1863 and became the first woman dean of the Woman’s Medical College in 1866. As dean, she campaigned vigorously for the admission of her female students to clinical lectures at prominent hospitals despite facing hostility from male students and faculty. She held this role until she passed away in 1872.

The following is a wisdom Ann shared about the role of women in medicine,

“We feel, and society feels, that we are not usurping the place of men, but taking a position in the broad field of medicine which appropriately belongs to women; and that we shall enlarge the sphere of professional usefulness, and contribute to the knowledge which shall bless the race.”


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