Celebrating Women’s History Month: Dr. Ann Preston

By Corrinne Fahl

Ann Preston MD (1813-1872)

ann preston

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is the appropriate time to celebrate the women in medicine who have come before us.  In the last century since the Flexner Report, the proportion of women in leadership positions still has a long journey ahead.  A 2018 AAMC report notes that  in 2018, women account for 16% of deans, 18% of department chairs, and 25% of full professors.  Here at the Perelman School of Medicine, we are ahead of these benchmarks with women representing 33% of our department chairs and xx % of full professors, as of 2022.  With this background in mind, the highlighted biography of this key figure in American Academic Medicine takes on added meaning. 

Ann Preston was the first woman to be the dean of a medical school in the United States, becoming Dean of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1867. After her tenure, WMCP would go on to have women deans for the next 100 years.

Dr. Preston was in the first graduating class from WMCP (Later graduates would include Mary Putnam Jacobi, Anna Broomall, Rebecca Cole, Eliza Grier, Anandibai Joshee, and Susan LaFlesche Picotte).

After the Philadelphia Medical Society barred women from educational clinics in 1858, Dr. Preston organized a board and funding to open a women’s hospital affiliated with the school, which opened in 1861, as well as a nurse’s training school which opened in 1863. Through her auspices students were allowed to attend general clinics at Blockley Almhouse and Hospital beginning in 1868 and Pennsylvania Hospital beginning in 1869. Pennsylvania Hospital was the site of what became known as the “jeering episode” where male students “catcalled, spat upon, and assaulted the women with spitballs and tobacco juice”. She and her students refused to let this behavior deter them, and she continued to advocate for the right of women to study medicine. She argued that it was not that the women students could not keep up, but that the men refused to welcome their equally capable female colleagues.

Fast forward to the 21st century, in some cultures within the academic medicine, these barriers persist.  As we continue to collectively work towards a more inclusive culture, it is important to recognize that these barriers can be addressed if we work together, remaining self aware of our own bias, remaining confident in our skills, and seeking to advocate for equitable policies.


Figure 1 Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1862