This series, highlighting women in medicine and science, would not be complete without Ann Preston. Ann’s determination and hard work paved the way for many women, because she tirelessly fought for women to be able to become doctors, and attend medical school, in times when slavery was just abolished, and men thought that women shouldn’t be education themselves because their ovaries will be underdeveloped for childbirth if they focus on school and not being a mother.
Ann was born in 1813, as the only girl who survived amongst 6 brothers. Early on, Ann noticed that girls were restricted to sedentary and indoor occupations and dressed in tight clothes, restricting movement. Ann had an early interest in health and health education and came to feel that women needed to know more about their own bodies. Once old enough, she decided to study the subject and to teach hygiene to local classes of women and girls. After two years of apprenticeship, she applied to medical colleges but was turned down because of her gender. When the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania was founded in 1850, Preston enrolled in its first class and graduated a year and a half later, to become a professor at the school.
For three years, Ann was travelling around the country and advocating, and fighting for women’s rights, to collect enough money to open the first, Women’s University Hospital of Pennsylvania. As Dean, Preston then fought for the right of her students to attend clinics at various local hospitals just like male medical students. It was not an easy battle, because when the first women arrived, they were met by an angry demonstration. The male medical students shouted insults and threw things at them, childishly. Ann protested this and stated publicly that “Wherever it is proper to introduce women as patients, there also it is but just and in accordance with the instincts of truest womanhood for women to appear as physicians and students.” And luckily the public opinion began to swing in favor of the education of women doctors.
Preston kept up her support of her medical students and fought for them, up until her death in 1872 and that is why she is an icon.
Sometimes it can be difficult to look up from the books and reflect solely on the fact that we are becoming doctors, and what an amazing honor that is. That I, as a woman, grew up in a time and place where I don’t have to fight to go to school, to pursue what I want in life and that is because of women like Ann Preston, who have paved the way for our generation of women and future generations to come.