Historical Markers
Female Medical College Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Female Medical College

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
3300 Henry Ave., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
September 30, 1996

Behind the Marker

Exterior view of the hospital, located on Pine Street between 8th and 9th Streets, from the southeast. Street scene in foreground includes a carriage; a wagon; several riders on horseback including a woman riding side saddle; pedestrians; and a watchman's guardhouse. Designed by Samuel Rhoads and David Evans, Jr., the east wing of the hospital was constructed 1755, the west wing and center pavilion in the 1790s.
Lithograph of Pennsylvania Hospital, 8th and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia, PA,...
It is no surprise that Pennsylvania gave birth in 1850 to the first school in the world established specifically to train women for the degree of doctor of medicine. Philadelphia, home to the nation's first hospital and first medical school, was already renowned as the "City of Medicine," and progressive Quakers in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties had long championed egalitarian causes, including the abolition of slavery and women's rights. The campaign to establish a medical school for women was led by the Fussell family of Chester County and the Longshores of Bucks County, who joined with businessman William J. Mullen to the open the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in rented quarters near Seventh and Arch Streets in Philadelphia.
The first building to house the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania (later known as Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania), founded in 1850.
First building of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, 627 Arch Street,...

The first graduation in December of 1851 (medical schools demanded only two years then) saw eight women receive degrees, including Hannah Longshore, who became Philadelphia's first active woman doctor, and Ann Preston who stayed with the College and in 1866 became the first female dean in an American medical school. Following European training, another graduate, Emeline Horton Cleveland (class of 1855), taught at the College and became one of the first American women to perform major surgery.

In 1861, Preston and several women friends opened the Woman's Hospital of Philadelphia to offer medical and surgical care of women by women, expand clinical experience for the College's students, and train nurses.

Renamed the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) in 1867, the school in 1875 built a new home on North College Avenue. Designed by Philadelphia architect Addison Hutton, it included designated space for microscopy, a library, and a chemistry laboratory, in addition to lecture halls and dissection rooms. New faculty included notable surgeons W. W. Keen and John B. Roberts; text-book author Henry Hartshorne; Anna Broomall, a master teacher of obstetrics; and Frances Emily White, a shockingly modern thinker who taught physiology.
Image of a young woman wearing a full skirted dress with a lace collar, and she is holding a book.
flip zoom
Dr. Ann Preston, first woman Dean of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania,...

In the 1800s, millions of American women joined societies supporting Christian missionary work, an accepted pursuit beyond the role of wife and mother. From 1867 to the mid-1900s, WMCP trained many future medical missionaries to India and China. In the early 1880s, the school welcomed students from India, Japan, and Syria, adding an exotic touch to the classes. At least twelve African-Americans graduated by 1900 (the first, Rebecca Cole, in 1867).

Fearful of mixing "irregular" medical ideas with the controversial mission of training women for medicine, the College adhered to then-standard teachings. By 1880 the small school offered superior training by capable women and men. Dr. Broomall's program in obstetrics, including pre-natal visits and deliveries at home, was outstanding.

But winning acceptance by the medical world proved difficult. The Philadelphia County Medial Society denied admission to its graduates, and forbade its members to meet with them and the school's faculty until 1888, when the Society voted in Mary Willits, a graduate of 1881 from a Berks County farming family.

Also in 1888, Clara Marshall, an 1875 graduate who taught "materia medica," became dean. Marshall guided the school through the difficult period that saw the reform of medical education in the United States, and in the early 1900s initiated the founding of a small hospital to fulfill new requirements.
Sepia image of a man with shoulder length hair, wearing spectacles, and holding a book.
flip zoom
Constantine Hering, the "Father" of American homeopathy, circa 1860.

When the number of American women seeking medical education declined in the early 1900s, and once all-male medical colleges admitted small numbers of women, enrollment and revenue at "Woman's Med" dropped. But its doors remained open, even through the grim years of the Great Depression. Since women won few faculty positions in United States medical schools before 1960, WMCP became an important source of such opportunities, and its hospital remained a crucial site for internships.

During the 1920s research became an expected activity of the American medical school. In 1930 the College and hospital moved to a new, larger home in the East Falls section of Philadelphia. Five years later a review of U.S. medical schools by the American Medical Association flagged WMCP for its paucity of full-time science faculty.

This need was somehow met: biochemist Marion Fay came from Texas, and anatomist Hartwig Kuhlenbeck from Germany by way of the University of Pennsylvania, to teach and do research. Fay later served as dean, while Kuhlenbeck rose to international stature in neuroanatomy. In 1938, alumna and faculty member Catharine Macfarlane began her pioneering work on cancer screening in women. Additions to the East Falls structure that began in the 1950s accommodated research, preventive medicine, and clinical care.
Group photograph of  Dr. Mabel E. Elliott and children suffering from trachoma. The location is Ismid, Turkey.
Dr. Mabel E. Elliott with children suffering from trachoma, Ismid, Turkey circa...

Following sometimes contentious debate, the Board of the College in 1969 voted to admit men to the medical school classes. The faculty continued to maintain a higher proportion of women than other U.S. medical schools, even after a name change in 1970 to Medical College of Pennsylvania (MCP), and built research programs in neuroscience, lipid metabolism, infectious diseases, psychiatry, and geriatrics. The school also became known for innovations in educational methodology, including the use of simulation, "problem-based learning," and a division of medical humanities.

Despite these accomplishments, a weak endowment and meager income from its small hospital, which served many poor persons, forced the College to seek a prosperous partner. In 1987, it affiliated with Allegheny Health Services, Inc. (AHSI), parent of Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. In 1993, AHSI brought Philadelphia's Hahnemann University into the enterprise, and then formed MCP-Hahnemann University.
Seven women gathered around a table participate in a dissection.
Medical students conducting a dissection at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania,...

When founded in 1848 as the Homeopathic Medical College of Pennsylvania, the Hahnemann Medical College (later University) also had embodied something new in American medicine–a homeopathic system for understanding and treating disease. Hahnemann, however, always taught homeopathy, which is based on the idea that "like cures like," in the context of a full medical curriculum, and awarded a double degree: Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Homeopathic Medicine. As homeopathy fell from professional favor in the twentieth century, Hahnemann evolved into a conventional medical school, and its hospital embraced high technological medicine and surgery.

After a wildly ambitious quest for growth plunged AHSI (later known as Allegheny Health, Education, and Research Foundation or AHERF) into bankruptcy in 1998, Drexel University rescued the medical school, now reborn as its College of Medicine, housed both at the Queen Lane campus and in center-city Philadelphia in conjunction with Hahnemann University Hospital. Other alliances for educational purposes include St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, Abington Hospital in Montgomery County, Allegheny General Hospital, and St. Peters Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Back to Top