Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens #BlackHistoryMatters

Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens #BlackHistoryMatters

Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens, 1st African-American woman to be admitted to the American College of Surgeons.

Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens was born on February 21st in 1909. She was a doctor, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and former associate dean of medicine.

Born in Dayton, Ohio, to Charles and Daisy (Green) Dickens she graduated from Roosevelt High School, she attended Crane Junior College in Chicago, Illinois. She was a 1934 graduate of the University Of Illinois School Of Medicine, the only African-American woman in her graduating class. She spent two years after graduation at Provident Hospital in Chicago, and then practiced with Dr. Virginia Alexander in a birthing-home practice in North Philadelphia. Dickens in 1943 she attended the Penn Graduate School of Medicine for one year concentrating in obstetrics and gynecology.

In 1945, she became the first female African American board-certified OBGYN in Philadelphia. In that same year, Dickens became director of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia. She joined the courtesy staff of Women’s Hospital in 1951. She joined the staff and faculty in the department of obstetrics and gynecology in the School of Medicine in 1956 when Penn acquired Women’s Hospital. At that time she was the first African American woman to serve in this position. She was also professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

In 1967, Dickens founded the Teen Clinic at Penn for school-age mothers in the inner city. The clinic included counseling and group therapy, educational classes, family planning assistance, and prenatal care. She also initiated a project that brought temporary cancer detection facilities into Philadelphia’s inner city. Also, Dickens instigated a program funded by the NIH that encouraged doctors to perform Pap smears to test for cervical cancer. In 1969 Dickens was named associate dean for minority admissions. She helped recruit African-Americans to the medical school and was responsible for increasing minority numbers from three students to 64. Dickens was a member of the Pan American Medical Women’s Association and its president from 1968-1970.

In 1982, Dickens received an honorary degree from Penn. She was also a member of the board of directors for the American Cancer Society, the Children’s Aid Society and the Devereaux Foundation. She was also the recipient of many awards including the Gimbel Philadelphia Award for “outstanding service to humanity;” the Medical Woman of the Year, Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania; Daisy Lumpkin Award; the Mercy Douglass Hospital Award; and the Sadie Alexander Award for community service by Delta Sigma Theta. In 1991, she received the faculty/staff award at Penn’s Women of Color celebration where their most prestigious award was named for Dr. Dickens.

Known as the Dr. Helen O. Dickens Lifetime Achievement Award, it is awarded to exemplary candidates with a long history of service to Women of Color in the Penn and Delaware Valley communities. She also received the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania Award for her “lifelong contributions to women’s health care both as an outstanding teacher-clinician and as a pioneer in programming to assist teen-aged mothers in the region to complete their education” in 1995.

The Helen O. Dickens Center for Women’s’ Health at HUP was named for Dr. Dickens in 1999 in honor of the 50 years she “dedicated to healing, helping and guiding women of all ages.” Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens died on December 2, at the age of 92. Her daughter Jayne Brown; son, Norman S. Henderson, and three grandchildren survive her.