Dr. Helen O. Dickens broke barriers for African-American women in medicine and health care for all women in Philadelphia and across the country.
She was the first African-American woman to become a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist in Philadelphia, the first African-American woman to serve in the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the first African-American female fellow of the American College of Surgeons.
She opened the first clinic for pregnant teens at Penn in 1967, and was an early champion of Pap smears and health programs aimed at preventing sexually transmitted diseases.
“I just think she lived through extraordinary times and she really used her position as a physician here in Philadelphia to try and make a difference for women,” said Dr. Deborah A. Driscoll, chairwoman of Penn’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Driscoll worked under Dickens while she was completing her residency.
“From a personal perspective, she was a very humble, unassuming, caring, compassionate (and) kind person. She was really dedicated to serving women and she began her career in Philadelphia delivering babies to women that were very impoverished and she wanted to find a way to improve their lives. ”
Dickens’ daughter, Dr. Jayne Henderson Brown, said Dickens was “extremely devoted to her work and her patients ... Her philosophy at all times was to be able to do some good for somebody.”
She said Dickens would often encourage others to consider pursuing a career in health care.
The daughter of a former slave, Dickens was born on Feb. 21, 1909 in Dayton, Ohio. She aspired early on to become a physician.
“It was what I wanted to do, and I didn’t see why I couldn’t do it. You just had to do what you had to do to get the job done,” Dickens told The Philadelphia Tribune in 1990, of her life’s dream of becoming a doctor.
She earned an M.D. degree from the University of Illinois and interned at Provident, a Black hospital on the south side of Chicago.
Dickens moved to Philadelphia in 1935 to work at Virginia Alexander’s Aspiranto Health Home, where she served patients living in poverty.
In 1941, Dickens attended the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Medicine and graduated with a master’s in obstetrics and gynecology. She went on to a residency program at hospital in Harlem, N.Y.
Dickens returned to Philadelphia in 1948 as director of the Mercy Douglass Hospital Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Two years later, she became the first African-American female fellow of the American College of Surgeons.
In 1956, she became the first African-American woman to serve in Penn Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Dickens established the nation’s first clinic for pregnant teens at Penn in 1967, where patients received prenatal care, social services, learned how to raise a child and were encouraged to finish their education. Dickens would also visit various high schools, where she educated students about sexual health.
Dr. Steven Sondheimer, an ob/gyn who worked closely with Dickens throughout the years at Penn, regarded her as a top-notch doctor and surgeon. They would often work together at the teen clinic and in the operating room.
“I never saw her as anything but a good physician, so in that sense she was like a role model,” Sondheimer said.
“She took initiative to solve problems. It’s often enough as a physician, just taking care of the patients that you see because that is all you need to do and she was good at that, but she took initiative to have a larger role.”
Sondheimer said she was pioneer when it came to performing a surgical procedure called a myomectomy, where fibroids are removed from a woman’s uterus.
Throughout her years at Penn, Dickens led extensive research on teen pregnancy and sexual health issues. According to Penn, her results were so impactful that local schools and health professionals were moved to develop preventive health programs and educational materials aimed at lowering the incidence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Dickens was instrumental in teaching African-American physicians in Philadelphia how to use Pap smears to detect cervical cancer in women during the late 60s.
“She spent a lot of effort and time in teaching them so that they could also impact and improve health care for women,” her daughter recalled.
This effort was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
“If every woman in Philadelphia had a Pap test once a year, no woman need die of uterine cancer,” Dickens told The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in 1968, when roughly 14,000 women in the U.S. died from the disease annually.
In 1969, Dickens was named associate dean for minority admissions and helped recruit African Americans to the medical school. She was responsible for increased minority enrollment from three students to 64 during the first five years.
She practiced medicine at Penn well into her 80s. In 1999, Penn Medicine dedicated the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women’s’ Health, in honor of the 50 years she spent “healing, helping and guiding women of all ages.”
The Center serves as an educational training site for medical and nursing students, and supports research projects that work to expand the scientific understanding of women’s health issues.
Dickens died on Dec. 2, 2001, at the age of 92.