When Philly abolitionists opened the first women’s medical school in the world

The college was run by woman deans for nearly a century.

Class underway at the first women's medical school in the world
Class underway at the first women’s medical school in the world HISTORY OF MEDICINE DIVISION, NATIONAL LIBRARY OF MEDICINE

Layla A. Jones Mar. 22, 2020, 9:30 a.m.

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The precursor to Drexel’s medical school was the world’s first place women could earn MDs.

A lot took place between 1850, when Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania was chartered on Arch Street, and 2002, when it became part of the Drexel University College of Medicine.

Over that time, the institution had a continuous stream of women deans, moved its campus to a larger location, experienced a dramatic spat with male students at Pennsylvania Hospital and was pivotal in the establishment of the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

At the early epicenter was Ann Preston, a Quaker dynamo who served on the board of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Sociery, wrote a children’s book, and helped launch that women’s hospital in North Philly.

Here’s how it all went down.

First women’s medical school in the world

Philly’s medical school for women opened at the location that eventually became 627 Arch St. Today, you can spot a plaque dedicated to its establishment on the 7th Street wall of the William J. Green Federal Building, which now stands in its place.

Originally called the Female Medical School of Pennsylvania, the college received its charter from the state legislature in May 1850, making it the world’s first to award women medical degrees. (A women’s school in Boston opened two years before the Philly school, but didn’t give out degrees.)ADVERTISEMENT

As it happens, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania was founded by Quaker men, including a businessman philanthropist and abolitionists William J. Mullen, Dr. Joseph S. Longshore and Dr. Bartholomew Fussell.

The college’s first announcement publicizing the program, made in a July 1850 edition of the Public Ledger, listed a few admission and graduation qualifications:

  • A completed “ordinary” education
  • Three years of medical study with two of those years under the guidance of a “respectable” medical professional
  • An age of 21 to receive a degree

About that tuition: Students owed $10 for each professor, a one-time matriculation fee of $5 and a $15 graduation fee. With six professors, the women paid a grand total of about $80 for their medical degree. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $2,600 in today’s money.

Instruction included four months of lectures beginning in October that covered topics like anatomy, obstetrics, chemistry and clinical practice.

Dr. Ann Preston
Dr. Ann Preston THE LEGACY CENTER, DREXEL UNIVERSITY

Ann Preston: Doctor, abolitionist, author

Ann Preston, born in 1813, was part of the inaugural eight-person graduating class of 1851 at the Woman’s Medical College.

A Chester County native born into a Quaker family, she accomplished a lot before enrolling, and she’d go on to do much more before her death in 1872.

Preston was involved in anti-slavery efforts as early as 1837. In 1849, a 36-year-old Preston published an abolitionist children’s book called “Cousin Ann’s Stories.” The Freeman paper lauded the project and recommended it for parents who “wish to instill in the minds of their children a sentiment of opposition to slavery, war, intemperence, the use of tobacco and other evils.”

It was around that time Preston sought to establish her medical career. She tried to gain admission into four traditional medical schools in Philadelphia, to no avail. When the women’s college was open, she jumped at the chance.

After graduating in 1851, Preston became the school’s first woman professor. In 1866 she rose to become the school’s first dean, starting a tradition of all woman-deans for nearly the entire next century.

Preston also headed the effort to open the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 1861.

The famous ‘jeering episode’

Anti-woman discrimination during this time was ever-present.

Despite Preston’s accomplishments in the medical field in Philadelphia, in 1869 she and her students were verbally and physically attacked when they traveled to Pennsylvania Hospital for clinical hours.

When the women arrived at the surgical amphitheater for class on Nov. 6, what they encountered was a mob hurling spitballs, cat-calls and tobacco juice at the “She Doctors,” as they were bitterly referred to.

The much-publicized incident became known as “the jeering episode.”

One edition of the Pennsylvania Evening Bulletin referred to it as “an outrage,” saying that “the police should arrest as many as possible of the offenders for insulting women in the street, and subject them to the penalties of the law.”

Preston and the Woman’s Medical College secretary, Dr. Emeline H. Cleveland, wrote a letter to the editor defending the woman students after the event.

“If they have been forced into unwelcome notoriety,” they wrote, “it has not been of their own seeking.”

100 more years till men were admitted

The first women’s college in the world pushed on, accomplishing several more firsts through its graduates.

Eliza Grier, the first Black woman doctor in the nation
Eliza Grier, one of the nation’s earliest Black woman doctors NIH ARCHIVES

Graduate Catherine Macfarlane conducted the first pelvic cancer prevention study. Graduate Anna Broomall created some of the first prenatal medical programs. Graduates Rebecca Cole and Eliza Grier were some of the first Black woman doctors. And the first ever Native American doctor, named Susan LaFlesche Picotte, was also a graduate.

In 1862, the college moved into the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia on 22nd Street and North College Avenue.

In 1970, the first four male students were admitted, ending the college’s 120-year all-woman reign. It was renamed the Medical College of Pennsylvania.

In 1995, the college merged with the Hahnemann University Medical School. In 2002, it was acquired by Drexel to create the university’s med school program that still continues today. Tuition is close to $60,000 per year.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the street address of the college’s first location, the identity of the nation’s first Black woman doctor, and the date when the college moved into the same building as the Women’s Hospital. Thanks goes to the director of The Legacy Center at Drexel University College of Medicine for help fixing inaccuracies.

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