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Healing Hands — the History, and Future, of Black Doctors at Penn

Eve Higginbotham
Eve Higginbotham, SM, MD, ML

Students come to the Perelman School of Medicine eager to learn the art and science of medicine. To become truly well-rounded doctors, though, they are wise to also study history—including the contributions that Black students, physicians have made to Penn Medicine, the city of Philadelphia, and the profession as a whole. Because for far too long, so many important figures in medical history were overlooked or underappreciated, despite the extra hardships they overcame to succeed based on their marginalized backgrounds.

Becoming immersed in the stories of these pioneers has real and valuable meaning, as Eve Higginbotham, SM, MD, ML, vice dean for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity in the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out in a recent Penn Medicine magazine article: “History matters. Words matter. Having all of our pivotal predecessors appropriately represented, being reflective of the words we use, being reflective of whose histories we honor through the use of their names and personal narratives, are all part of the way we can acknowledge and reaffirm our commitment to inclusivity.”

Born Into Slavery, Then a Physician Pioneer

Penn’s medical school opened its doors in 1765, and graduated just 10 students in 1768; however, neither women or people of color were represented among these first graduates. But during the late 1700s, some Black practitioners were providing medical care, including one Philadelphia native who played a small but interesting part in Penn’s medical education history.

James Derham, who is considered the first Black physician in the United States, was enslaved from the time of his birth and over the years by various doctors who trained him in medicine. In 1783, while still enslaved, he was transferred to a physician in New Orleans who he served as an assistant. Derham then bought his freedom and opened up his own practice, until a man who would go on to become one of Penn’s most famous faculty members encouraged him to come home.

“I conversed with him on medicine and surgery and found him learned,” said renowned Penn professor, Continental Army Surgeon General, and Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush , according to a historical report from the Journal of the National Medical Association, after a visit to New Orleans. “I thought I could give him information concerning the treatment of disease, but I learned more from him than he could expect from me.”  

In 1788, Derham returned to Philadelphia and became a well-known throat disease expert, but headed back to New Orleans shortly thereafter to help fight the yellow fever epidemic.

Derham and Rush, who was now teaching at the medical school, continued to correspond via letters, exchanging ideas — and even a pamphlet on how to treat chicken pox — and other personal matters. Rush, who adamantly opposed slavery, appears to have learned a lot about medicine from Derham. He was reportedly so impressed with Derham’s ability to treat diphtheria patients, that he read Derham’s paper on the disease before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, though they snubbed the content. Later, it was believed that Derham was shut down by local authorities in New Orleans because of a lack of an official medical degree, and then he disappeared from historical records. He was thought to have died of a heart attack in 1802.

Standout Students

Nathan Francis Mossell, MD Photo credit: University of Pennsylvania Archives

One of the most noteworthy events next on the school’s timeline happened in 1879, the year it admitted a Black man for the first time.

A standout among his peers, Nathan Francis Mossell, MD, took second honors in his graduating class and was trained first by D. Hayes Agnew, MD, an anatomy professor and chair of Surgery at Penn, in the Outpatient Surgical Clinic of the University Hospital. As described in a 2017 Penn Medicine News Blog post about Mossell, the experience wasn’t without drama — even without the ostracism he faced from some (but not all) students, he learned that at least one faculty member had voted against his admission. This motivated him to work even harder, to prove his detractors wrong: I prepared myself so thoroughly on the subjects, taught by those whom I suspected; it would have been impossible for them to flunk me without committing rank injustice.

After leaving the colonies for Europe to secure an internship after graduation — it was much easier for Black physicians to train overseas — Mossell returned to Philadelphia in 1888 and was elected to the Philadelphia County Medical Society, making him the first Black physician to achieve this honor.

He founded the country’s second Black hospital, at which he made it a point to include female physicians — the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School, a forerunner of the city’s Mercy Douglass Hospital. Mossell also helped found the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. Today, Mossell’s legacy lives on at Penn as the name of one of the four “houses” designed to foster interaction between classes in PSOM.

Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School Photo credit: University of Pennsylvania Archives

Although Mossell was the most prominent Black student of his time at Penn, it’s also worth mentioning one of his contemporaries, Albert Monroe Wilson, who Mossell described as a man with “considerable ability” in his biography. Wilson was not officially enrolled in the medical school, but he was permitted to attend many of the lectures during the end of his tenure at Penn, where he worked as a janitor, a messenger, and eventually a laboratory assistant in the medical school. Wilson was charged with setting up equipment for professor John Fries Frazer’s lectures and experiments in chemistry and physics. He went on to become a respected “medical healer” in the Black community.

Trailblazing Women

Helen O. Dickens, MD, wearing a white coat and seated at a desk in 1947
Dickens, a physician and advocate for women’s health, preventive care, and health equity for Black women and girls, was influential in her profession from the 1930s until her death in 2001. The photo was provided courtesy of Dickens’ daughter, Jayne Henderson Brown, MD.

In1959, the first Black woman was accepted into the school of medicine at Penn. During the years of her medical training, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, with many colleges and universities finally opening the doors to women and people of color following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the year that Arlene Bennett, MD, graduated from Penn. Bennett, a Philadelphia native, had joined the United States Air Force as a radio mechanic so she could attend college through the G.I Bill. One of only six women in her class at Penn (and the only woman of color), after her graduation she went on to become a successful psychiatrist in private practice which included a stint in Community Mental Health at Pennsylvania Hospital.

In 2014, she spoke at PSOM’s commencement, which also marked her 50th year since graduating, and in December of that year received the Elizabeth Kirk Rose award at the annual Women in Medicine luncheon at Penn for her work. When accepting the award, she paused to note how far the school had come in terms of inclusivity and equity: “It is a joy to see so many women, and so many women of color, among the ranks of students and recent alumni.”

Another important milestone in Penn’s history took place five years after Bennett graduated, though this doctor’s impact dates further back than that. In 1969, Helen Octavia Dickens, MD, became the medical school’s first African-American female full professor. Dickens is a figure whose importance to PSOM has recently been pushed to a new place of prominence through an expanded biographical display surrounding her portrait in a new, central location in Penn’s Stemmler Hall — the focus of a recent Penn Medicine magazine feature story by the exhibit’s curator.

A man and a woman dressed in matching black T-shirts lift the portrait of Helen O. Dickens into place within an expanded exhibit housing, while a man on a stepladder does work on the display backdrop.
The expanded exhibit and new home for Dickens’ portrait were installed in late August 2021 and dedicated in early December.

Dickens was a woman of firsts. Before coming to Penn, she worked as an obstetrician/gynecologist, including stints at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital founded by Nathan Mossell and its successor, Mercy Douglass, and in the 1940s she became an early proponent of Pap smear testing for cancer prevention. In 1945, she became the first African-American woman to receive a Master of Medical Science degree from Penn’s now-defunct Graduate School of Medicine, and five years later she became the first African-American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons.

The daughter of a domestic servant and a janitor who was formerly enslaved, Dickens joined Penn Medicine’s Obstetrics and Gynecology department in 1956 and became the first female African-American board-certified OB/GYN in Philadelphia. She later went on to found the Teen Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, providing care for school-age mothers in the city and advocating for family planning and contraception. She also established the Office of Minority Affairs in 1969, serving as associate dean, and within five years had increased minority enrollment from 3 students to 64. The founding of that office has preserved the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s up to today. 

Striving Toward Equity

Building off that commitment, in 2013, Higginbotham was named the first Vice Dean for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity at PSOM’s renamed Office of Minority Affairs, highlighting the importance of an institutional climate in building a more diverse PSOM community. The Office coordinates and interacts with a number of programs aimed at building a culture of inclusion, including Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Learner Experience Program in Medical Education (IDEAL MEd) led by Horace DeLisser, MD, an associate professor of Medicine and associate dean for Diversity and Inclusion.

Together with Dwaine Duckett, the first Black vice president for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Higginbotham serves as a leader of the Action for Cultural Transformation (ACT), which seeks to transform Penn Medicine into an anti-racist, equitable, diverse, and inclusive institution.

It’s work well worth doing. Over 100 years ago, Mossell noted that widespread reports of his story helped encourage other young Black students in the area to make the leaps he made: “There were about five colored physicians serving the city [64 years ago]. Three of these were regular graduates. Now there are more than two hundred practicing colored physicians.”

Still today, representation still matters, in a very tangible way, for young people interested in medicine. On the occasion of her graduation from PSOM in 2019, Kenyan-born student Ivy Maina, MD, now a Penn Otorhinolaryngology resident, penned these words in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Fifty-five years ago, Dr. Arlene Bennett became the first Black woman to graduate from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Through her perseverance, she paved the way for so many women who look like me. I’ll be proudly walking in her footsteps as I cross the stage during graduation in May.”

Editor’s note: This post has been updated and expanded from an earlier version, originally by Steve Graff and published in 2015.

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