As the first woman to be made dean of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), Ann Preston campaigned for her students to be admitted to clinical lectures at the Philadelphia Hospital, and the Pennsylvania Hospital. Despite the hostility of the all-male student groups, she was determined to negotiate the best educational opportunities for the students of WMCP.
Ann Preston was born in West Grove, Pennsylvania, a Quaker community near Philadelphia, in 1813. She was the second of nine children born to Amos Preston, a Quaker minister, and Margaret Smith Preston. Of their three daughters, Ann Preston was the only one to survive to adulthood.
She was educated at the local Quaker school, then at a Friends boarding school in Chester, Pennsylvania, until she had to return home to care for her family when her mother became ill. To continue her education she attended lectures of the local literary association and lyceum, and was a member of the Clarkson Anti-Slavery Society and the temperance movement. She wrote petitions and lectures for the anti-slavery society, and, when her younger brothers were old enough to look after themselves, she became a teacher and in 1849 published a book of children's rhymes, Cousin Ann's Stories.
By the early 1840s she had begun teaching physiology and hygiene to all-female classes, with a view to educating women about their own bodies. In 1847, she enrolled for an apprenticeship in medical education with Dr. Nathaniel R. Moseley, then applied to four medical colleges in Philadelphia. Like the other applicants, she was rejected outright. In March 1850, a group of Quakers founded the Female (later Woman's) Medical College of Pennsylvania, and in October, Ann Preston enrolled in the first class. She graduated in December, 1851, at age 38. She stayed on at the school for a year of postgraduate study, and was appointed professor of physiology and hygiene there in 1853.
In 1858, the Philadelphia Medical Society spoke out against the Woman's Medical College, barring women from educational clinics and medical societies. The College faculty itself could not agree on the best approach to women's medical education, so Dr. Preston organized a board of "lady managers," wealthy supporters of the cause, to fund and run a woman's hospital where students could gain clinical experience. The hospital opened in 1861 and in 1863, Dr. Preston also established a school of nursing.
In 1866, Dr. Ann Preston became the first woman dean of the Woman's Medical College, and in 1867 she was elected to the college Board. She was determined to improve the educational opportunities of her students, despite the hostility of other educators and practitioners, and in 1868 negotiated with the Philadelphia Hospital, Blockley, to allow her students to attend the general clinics there. In 1869 she made a similar arrangement with the Pennsylvania Hospital, where her students were harassed by the male students. Dr. Preston accompanied her women physicians-in-training to the very first clinic, witnessing the drama of this historic occasion first hand. In a letter written February 21, 1925, one of her former students, Sarah C. Hall, recalled the events that day for the 75th anniversary of the Woman's Medical College:
"We were allowed to enter by way of the back stairs, and were greeted by the men students with hisses and paper wads, and frequently during the clinic were treated to more of the same. The Professor of Surgery came in and bowed to the men only. More hisses...We retired the same way we entered and, on reaching the outer door, found men students lined up on one side of the way, and we, to get out, had to take the road and walk to the street to the tune of 'The Rogues March.' Our students separated as soon as possible. All who could took the little antiquated horse cars in any direction they were going. The men separated also, and in groups of twos, threes, and fours, followed the women."
Twenty years after Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree from an American institution, woman medical students and physicians were still something of a novelty. At the hospital lectures, attended by mostly male students, they had to endure barracking and intimidation. Dr. Preston refused to let such behavior limit the women's educational opportunities, arguing that it was not that the women students could not keep up, but that the men refused to welcome their equally capable female colleagues. Thanks to Dr. Preston and her students, the sight of women medical students studying alongside men gradually became less unusual after that first day in 1869.