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Helen O. Dickens: A Figure Who Was Anything But Hidden

“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,” Helen O. Dickens told the Philadelphia Tribune in 1990 of her life’s dream of becoming a doctor. And for Dickens, that was pretty much all there ever was to it. Reading her biography, skimming her catalogue of awards, memberships, and honors, and thumbing through her tome of research, now packed into 27 boxes in the University of Pennsylvania archives, it’s undeniable that Dickens was a leader in the advancement of both African-Americans and women in medicine. But for Dickens, who was never comfortable being called a trailblazer, it was only ever about achieving her dream. Along the way, however, she left an indelible imprint on her community and played a vital role in transforming women’s health care.

Dickens was born in Dayton, Ohio on Feb 21, 1909. Her father, born into slavery, was raised by a Union colonel from the age of nine. He had dreams of practicing law, and even attended Wilberforce and Oberlin College, but when racial prejudice prevented his advancement, he supported his family working as a janitor. Despite not having the opportunity to achieve his own dreams, Dickens’s father never lost sight of the value of education. Determined that his children would have the opportunities he didn’t, he sent Dickens and her brother to one of the few integrated schools in the Dayton area. Though her father died when she was only eight years old, Dickens’s nerve, she would later say in a profile of her life, was the legacy he left her.

Even in her childhood, Dickens knew she wanted to go into medicine. Her father had hoped she might be a nurse, but she had other ideas; she decided if she could be a nurse, she could just as well be a doctor – though she didn’t know a single one who was a woman. Money was never abundant, but like many other barriers she would encounter over the course of her life and career, Dickens simply didn’t sweat it. “You shouldn’t let finances hold you back,” she said. “If you work hard, you can open doors.”

In 1929, after being rejected from a few of her choices for medical school, Dickens cleared her first of many professional hurdles and was accepted to the University of Illinois Medical School. When Dickens graduated with her medical degree in 1934, she was one of only three non-white students in her class of 175, and just one of two women. That year, she was not only the sole female African-American graduate, but she also became the University of Illinois’s first black women physician graduate.

While working as a general medicine intern at Provident Hospital in Chicago one year later, she came across a bulletin board advertising for someone to practice in Dr. Virginia Alexander’s birthing-home in Philadelphia. “The first baby I saw delivered, I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” Dickens told the Philadelphia Tribune of her transition from general medicine to obstetrics. She seized that opportunity on the bulletin board and, without knowing it, began to make her mark on the city; the move would make her one of the first black women to practice medicine in Philadelphia.

Dr. Alexander’s practice was in her home, where, as the Tribune reported, the living room doubled as the waiting room, and the dining room was the treatment room. Though unconventional, the practice provided much needed services to a very poor and under-served community. Many of Dickens’s patients, for example, were living in single family homes occupied by as many as five other families. But for Dickens, whose special interest had always been in providing badly needed services to youth in the black community, it was right where she wanted to be. In addition to fulfilling the demands of the practice, over the course of the next seven years Dickens became an integral part of the community, speaking often to church and community groups, and working in well-baby clinics.

With her passion and direction firmly established, Dickens sought only to further her education. In 1941, Dr. Dickens attended what was then called the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Medicine and, and one year later, graduated with a master’s in obstetrics & gynecology.

Racism was never far off: while applying for residency at a white hospital in Philadelphia, Dickens recalls being asked, “Why do colored people want to come where they are not wanted?” But, she persevered and was accepted to a residency program at a hospital in Harlem, NY.

She returned to Philadelphia three years later as the director of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Mercy Douglass Hospital, a community hospital that had been established for African-American patients. Over the next twenty years, Dickens would continue to break down barriers, posting a string of firsts: as the first female African-American board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist in Philadelphia, the first African-American female admitted to the American College of Surgeons, and in 1965, as the first woman to serve in the department of Obstetrics & Gynecology’s faculty at Penn. Awards came, too: In 1960, she was named Philadelphia’s Woman of the Year by the local chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association.

Hoping to educate young women and improve care for this vulnerable population, over the years Dickens led extensive research on teen pregnancy and sexual health issues. Her results were so impactful and alarming 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. Today, much of what we know about the importance of annual OB/GYN visits and the effectiveness of the now standard Pap smear in detecting early signs of cervical cancer and other potentially life-threatening conditions was influenced by Dickens’s work.

“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 – today that number is around 10,000 annually. The problem, she said was that “a lot of women are reluctant to get medical checkups that include pelvic exams.” Her wish, she said in the Evening Bulletin, was that one woman in every family would appoint herself “a committee of one” to make sure every female relative received an annual Pap smear and pelvic exam. Though Dickens worked to set up temporary offices in churches and community centers where free Pap tests were provided, she felt there was also an opportunity to partner with primary care physicians in the effort. To further tackle what she considered a deplorable statistic, Dickens received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to train general practitioners to give women the screening. “If all women have this test, and cancer of the uterus is diagnosed in its early age, it is felt a 100 percent cure can be achieved,” she said.

For more than 20 years Dickens counseled young women and communities on all issues related to sexual health, not only to improve early detection of cervical and uterine cancers, but also to reduce a prevent teen pregnancy.

In 1967, Dickens founded the first clinic for pregnant teenagers in the inner city, providing not only prenatal care for young girls, but also intensive counseling, group therapy, and family planning assistance. True to her life’s commitment to education, Dickens’s clinic also helped patients deal with the problems of childcare after birth, hopefully making it possible for the young mothers to return to school. Much like the mantra she followed personally, Dickens shared the same ideals with these young patients. Her words of wisdom to women who want to follow in her footsteps? Dickens told the Philadelphia Tribune, “Follow your dream. You got two feet and a head? Keep going.

Today, physicians across Penn Medicine’s department of Obstetrics & Gynecology uphold Dickens’s commitment to women’s health, family planning, and preventative care through programs that provide comprehensive prenatal and obstetrical care, contraceptives to low-income patients at risk for teen pregnancy, counseling and educational services.

In accepting the Distinguished Alumni award from the University of Illinois Medical Center, Dickens said, “In medicine, no physician is too old to learn, nor so wise that he need not learn.” True to that ideal, 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.” Dickens passed away two years later, in December 2001, at the age of 92. In addition to providing comprehensive care to patients, the Center today also 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.

Just as Dr. Dickens recognized the connection between physical and psychosocial well-being of women, the Center has worked to establish partnerships with city and community agencies, state funded programs and managed care organizations, to insure that women have access to and are referred to adjunct programs and services to address their unique educational, financial, and psychosocial concerns.

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