helen octavia dickens

Helen Octavia Dickens: Trailblazer in Women’s Reproductive Healthcare

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Amber Hathaway

I am a physics graduate student, campus organizer, aspiring horror writer, crafter, and amateur genealogist from Maine

Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens is most well known for becoming the first African-American woman named Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. However, what is equally notable is that she devoted her long career in medicine to improving the health and wellbeing of women, especially low income black women and teen girls.

Helen Octavia Dickens was born on February 21, 1909 in Dayton, Ohio to Charles Warren and Daisy Jane (Green) Dickens. Her father, who had been born into slavery, worked as a janitor and her mother worked as a housekeeper. Both parents emphasized the value of education and encouraged her to attend desegregated schools with more educational resources.

Dr. Dickens was admitted to Crane Junior College in Chicago. While a student there, she sat at the front of the classroom so that she could ignore fellow students’ racist remarks and gestures. She later attended the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago, where she completed her M.D. in 1934. She was the only African-American woman and one of two women in her graduating class.
From 1933 to 1935, Dr. Dickens was a resident in obstetrics at predominantly black Provident Hospital in Chicago. She then worked in a birthing-home practice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for seven years. When her colleague she practiced with left to pursue further medical education, she took over the practice, running it with only the assistance of a nurse.

She received additional training at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Medicine and was then certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1945. Her certification made her the first African-American woman board-certified OB/GYN in Philadelphia. Later that year, she became the director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mercy Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia.

In 1950 she became the first African-American woman Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. The following year, she accepted a position at the Women’s Hospital in Philadelphia,
where she eventually became the chief of obstetrics and gynecology. The Women’s Hospital was later subsumed into the University of Pennsylvania’s medical complex. When the merger occurred, Dr. Dickens became a member of the faculty and staff in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology of the School of Medicine, becoming the first black woman to hold such a position.

Dr. Dickens taught at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology for many years beginning in 1965. She achieved the rank of full professor in 1976 and professor emeritus in 1985. She also was the dean of the office of minority enrollment for some of her time at the University of Pennsylvania and helped increase the enrollment of minority medical students. In her first five years in that position, minority enrollments went from two or three per year to sixty-four.

One of Dr. Dickens’s major focuses during her career was advocating for teen mothers. Her extensive research on teen pregnancy demonstrated the important role that education plays in preventing teen pregnancy and helped lead to funding and further studies in this area. In 1967 she founded the teen clinic at the University of Pennsylvania for inner city teen mothers. The clinic provided prenatal care, counseling and group therapy, family planning services, and educational classes. She eventually became the director of the teen clinic.

Dr. Dickens was also concerned about cancer detection among low income and minority populations, particularly uterine and cervical cancer. She started a project that set up temporary cancer detection facilities in inner city Philadelphia. She also implemented a project encouraging doctors to perform pap smears to test for cervical cancer. Her research on uterine cancer led to several awards, including from the American Cancer Society.

She belonged to several professional societies and was a board member for the American Cancer Society and the Children’s Aid Society. She received many awards, including the American Medical Woman of the Year award. She received honorary doctorates from the Medical College of Pennsylvania and the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Dickens married fellow surgeon Dr. Purvis Henderson. Together they had two children, Dr. Jayne Henderson Brown and Norman Henderson. Dr. Dickens died December 2nd, 2001.

For more on Helen Octavia Dickens, see Notable Black American Women, Book II and the University of Pennsylvania’s Helen Octavia Dickens Papers.

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