By Carol Benenson Perloff
“History matters,” said Eve Higginbotham, MD, ML, vice dean for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity at the Perelman School of Medicine and a leader of the Action for Cultural Transformation (ACT) at Penn Medicine.
“Words matter,” she continued. “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.”
ACT is broadly focused on action and is committed to transforming Penn Medicine into an anti-racist, equitable, diverse, and inclusive organization. In parallel, a groundswell of efforts have addressed the names and symbols that detract from the celebration of diversity and have encouraged recognition of those who should be celebrated alongside efforts to achieve better diversity, equity, and inclusion. Last year, with renewed attention to the legacy of racism in the field of obstetrics and gynecology, Penn Medicine’s department took down a painting that depicted a 19th-century physician performing a procedure, assisted by a Black woman who is thought to be enslaved. An effort initiated by Penn OB/GYN residents and medical students, meanwhile, gained unanimous support across departments to rename a retractor tool that bears the name of another gynecologist, a founder in the field known to conduct experiments on enslaved and unwilling Black women. And on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, one of the four “houses” designed to foster interaction between classes in the medical school, was renamed to honor Nathan Mossell, MD (1882), the first African American to earn an MD from Penn.
More recently, the portrait of Helen Octavia Dickens, MD found a new home in Stemmler Hall, surrounded by a new, expanded display recognizing her life, career, and legacy. Installed in August and dedicated at a small, private event in early December upon the 20th anniversary of her passing, the prominent portrait is a symbolic reaffirmation of inclusivity at Penn Medicine visible to all who pass through Stemmler Hall.
Dickens was not only the first African-American woman faculty member in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Penn, but a vital leader in the community advocating for preventive health for women and teen girls of color.
“We have a rich and diverse history and it is important for us to identify and highlight individuals such as Dr. Dickens because they were not self-promoting and, as a consequence, were largely overlooked by the broader community,” as Marisa Bartolomei, PhD, a professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, noted to the exhibit’s historian and curator, Carol Benenson Perloff.
The portrait of Dickens on display since 1992 was painted by her friend, accomplished artist and dermatologist Bernett Johnson, Jr., MD. Its move to Stemmler Hall and expanded interpretive context were a first major change initiated by the Perelman School of Medicine’s Portrait Committee, established as an advisory group to the dean in 2020 as part of a broader goal to address and advance diversity.
As Perloff, the curator of the expanded display, describes in the following sections, Dickens’ life and career reflect a deep caring and commitment to the lives of Black women and their families in particular, both personally and at the scale of entire communities. In recruiting more underrepresented minorities to Penn, she helped to change the face of the future of medicine.
Dickens’ legacy continues at Penn Medicine today through a system-wide commitment to lead the field in addressing racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health, shared through collaborative efforts across clinical departments, large and small research efforts, and growing community partnerships. Now that commitment also has a more prominent symbol, a face, and an expanded story.
“I hope the exhibit provides encouragement and pride to PSOM faculty, trainees, and staff,” said Michael Ostap, PhD, co-chair of the portrait committee with Bartolomei and a professor of Physiology, “and I sincerely hope it provides a framework for telling other important stories of the underrepresented members of our community that have not been heard.”
— Introduction by Rachel Ewing
A Remarkable Life Story in 20 Linear Feet
A life-sized photo of Helen O. Dickens, MD, invites viewers into her story, which unfolds across the display in blocks of time. She grew up in Dayton, Ohio, with parents who encouraged hard work and education. Her father, who did janitorial work, died when Dickens was nine years old. Her mother, a domestic servant, continued to nurture her daughter’s bold ambition to be a physician, despite the obstacles she’d face. In 1933, Dickens graduated from the University of Illinois School of Medicine as one of three women and the only African-American woman in her class. She did her internship at Provident Hospital, a Black institution located in Chicago’s South Side, and stayed on for a year of obstetrical training.
The story then shifts to Philadelphia, where Dickens arrived in 1935 to assist Virginia Alexander, MD, at the Aspiranto Health Home, a six-bed hospital and clinic located in Alexander’s North Philadelphia row house. Within two years, Alexander left to pursue further education and Dickens took over the clinic and heavy load of home deliveries, and joined the staff of Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, the city’s first African-American–run hospital. The time launched her life’s work serving the city’s poor Black community.
A lot happened in the six years between 1941 and 1947. Despite being told she might not be happy at Penn’s Graduate School of Medicine during her admissions interview, Dickens matriculated there and became its first African-American woman to earn the Master of Medical Science degree. For residency, she returned to Chicago, where she met surgical resident Purvis Henderson, MD. They married and began managing dual careers at a distance when Harlem Hospital offered her an OB/GYN residency. From New York she returned to Philadelphia where, in 1946, she became the city’s first African-American woman to receive board certification from the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She bought a house in North Philadelphia, where she established her practice, resumed work at Douglass Hospital, and headed up OB/GYN at Mercy Hospital. And she gave birth to their first child, Jayne. Dickens and Henderson later adopted a son, Norman.
"If you ‘ring’ the Aspiranto Home, 2104 Jefferson Street, and you hear a quiet, dulcet voice reach your ear via the phone, you can be sure that the person behind that cool, rounded ‘Hello?’ is the level-headed, sympathetic, and capable obstetrician and pediatrician, Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens."
Dickens made her mark in cancer prevention and education in the late 1940s, in particular as a crusader for Pap smear testing. This was on top of her private practice and, in 1948, appointment as director of OB/GYN at the newly merged Mercy Douglass Hospital, where she created residency-training opportunities for Black physicians. Dickens lobbied doctors throughout Pennsylvania to offer the Pap test and taught 200 Black physicians how to perform it. Equally important, she addressed reluctance within the Black community for women to have pelvic exams and Pap smears due to fears of sterilization, a concern rooted in generations of mistrust in the medical profession from non-consensual experimentation on Black individuals.
In 1965, Dickens became the first African-American woman faculty member in OB/GYN at Penn. She continued her advocacy for cancer education and made trailblazing contributions to family planning, addressing teen pregnancy and sexual health issues within Philadelphia’s Black community. The Teen Clinic she founded at Penn in 1967 provided counseling and group therapy, educational classes, family planning assistance, and prenatal care. Her efforts to get teens to use contraceptives worked and inspired local schools and health professionals to develop prevention programs. As associate dean for minority affairs, Dickens increased the number of underrepresented minorities applying and coming to medical school at Penn. The University appointed her professor emeritus in 1985. She continued to see patients until age 85.
"My professional career in medicine has been inspired mainly by the many badly needed services to youth in the Black community."
Helen O. Dickens, MD, achieved many firsts that broke the glass ceiling for Black women in medicine. The final panel of the exhibit reflects that as well as many more aspects of her legacy. Her advocacy for Pap smear testing and research into teen pregnancy addressed women’s health and inequities that have affected Black communities for generations. Her way of helping young women to empower themselves, her lasting influence on students and colleagues, and her imprint on Penn Medicine clinics that carry on her mission, all continue to help build toward a healthier future for all.
Growing a Photo
A captivating image of the physician at home, casually leaning on a bannister, provides the hook to draw in passersby. Another hook – Dickens’ simple yet powerful words: “I wanted to be a physician.” In large white typeface, this statement of her underlying determination sets the tone for the narrative.
Making the photo life-size required manipulating the image to make her stand out and adjusting its ratio for the wall space. Schwarzenbach painted in her skirt and the bottom of the staircase to lengthen the image. Then she used a special technique of duplicating the photo, erasing the background on the top layer, and then fading the bottom background layer to fade out on one edge.
Restoring the Lost Details
I was introduced to the work of Helen O. Dickens, MD nearly 30 years ago in the context of the first-ever exhibit I curated, “A Century of Obstetrics,” installed in the John Morgan Building. In that historical retrospective of the Department of OB/GYN, Dickens and her innovative teen pregnancy program received honorable mention among luminaries like Drs. Barton Cooke Hirst, Maria Delivoria-Papadopoulos, Luigi Mastroianni Jr., and Celso-Ramon Garcia.
Working with the PSOM portrait committee this year, as a team and individually, we came away from this exhibit experience enlightened and inspired by Dickens’ drive to make a difference in Philadelphia’s underserved Black community. It left exhibit designer Barbara Schwarzenbach of Cloud Gehshan Associates “amazed at how one person could have such a huge impact on women’s health, particularly on Black women’s health and their access to quality health care and education.” And we saw her do this while successfully juggling the responsibility of parenting two children during the formative years of her career.
Creating an exhibit typically starts with content development: researching archival sources for documentation and photographs, interviewing people, and establishing a story outline. Next comes writing the interpretive narrative. After that, the exhibit designer transforms Word documents and photo files into a visually engaging display.
The research process was no longer typical when COVID-19 restrictions shut down visitor access to the University of Pennsylvania Archives, repository for 27 cubic feet of the Helen Octavia Dickens Papers. Other than a modicum of online photographs and notes from a 2010 presentation that Deborah Driscoll, MD, the Luigi Mastroianni Jr. Professor of OB/GYN, had prepared from research in the Archives, I had to find other inroads to Dickens’ story.
The Internet never disappoints. It yielded links to a 1988 oral history Dickens participated in for the former Medical College of Pennsylvania’s Black Women’s Physicians Project, a 2010 dissertation about Dickens and medical activism in Philadelphia, and a 2020 BBC article about Dickens and the Pap smear.
The oral history transcript, in particular, obtained as a PDF from the Harvard University Library, was invaluable in understanding and interpreting Dickens’ life. It contained memories of a young doctor in a North Philadelphia practice, venturing alone in the middle of the night in all kinds of communities, finding it “very exciting.” It also offered insights of a seasoned clinician-educator who spent years helping the Black community. “Being a Black physician, you may see some of the Black social and cultural issues that a White physician may not, in all honesty, be aware of…. There is a need for a change in medical education so that students become aware of the cultural and religious aspects of the community.”
Dickens’ daughter, Jayne Henderson Brown, MD, could not have been more gracious in sharing her knowledge, memories, photographs, and insights about her mother’s contributions and priorities. Brown described a laid-back and quiet woman who knew how to assert herself, a very socially active person who always saw that her family was taken care of. Dickens kept close to her children, bringing them with her on Saturday hospital rounds, where they waited in the lobby or the car. The family waited on Christmas celebrations until she returned from delivering a baby. For years, Dickens juggled career and family as a de facto single parent, as her husband was advancing his surgical training and career in Savannah. Brown also shared the prejudices Dickens faced as a woman and an African American, from derogatory statements in medical school to her discouraging admissions interview at Penn.
"My mother definitely would not have considered herself an activist. Her work was something she wanted to do, regardless of external boundaries. If a boundary was there, a male who was negative, she addressed it at the moment and kept on going."
Brown welcomed Schwarzenbach and me into her home, allowing us to remove treasured family photographs from picture frames and albums to borrow for scanning. She had several stunning images of Dickens and her husband, taken by G. Marshall Wilson. A Black photographer, Wilson went on to a 33-year career with Ebony magazine, capturing iconic images of the Civil Rights era. It said something about Dickens’s stature in Philadelphia’s Black community to be among his clientele.
Newspaper clippings provided insights into Dickens’ professional and personal life. They also offered historic context for topics like childbirth in the hospital, abortion, child welfare, and preventive health care for the Black community. Newspaper accounts starting in 1940 showed just how impactful Dickens’ efforts were to encourage women, and especially Black women, to pursue education, including education about their own health and the benefits of cancer screening and family planning. She worked to change the perception that cancer was a disease of white women and used a community network of Black service organizations, including college sorority contacts, to reach Philadelphia’s Black women through seminars held in churches.
Ostap strayed from his lab into historical research. Looking through medical school yearbooks from the 1960s and ‘70s, he found, “The lack of diversity among the staff and students in these pages and the portrayal of the patient populations is striking and concerning. Dickens’ extraordinary contributions are even more impressive when you consider the environment in which she had to work.”
Triage for an exhibit means prioritizing themes, photographs, and supporting quotes. Next comes organizing them — in this case, as chronological chapters — and writing drafts till it all flows. Rounds of edits helped address the tricky nuances. One such example was finding the most appropriate way to word the horrific cases of incomplete abortions Dickens saw while a resident at Harlem Hospital in the 1940s, an experience that further motivated her to improve women’s health care in underserved communities. Brown and her daughter fact-checked the narrative. The designer laid out a grid for the exhibit and then words and imagery began to join.
Hanging the classic, gold-framed Dickens oil portrait in a glass-enclosed display case within a modern lobby space posed design challenges. The interpretive backdrop needed to harmonize visually with the portrait, pop to compel people to stop and read it, and absorb a lot of information into 20 linear feet. Exhibit design standards set by the Smithsonian to meet ADA guidelines also came into play. Considerations included the placement of narrative and images based on human factors like people’s heights and wheelchair access, viewing distances, text size, and typeface.
Schwarzenbach created a two-tiered layout: the main body of text across the panel at the more comfortable eye level and above it, a photo album of sorts. Shades of coral and white, echoing the dress and pearls Dickens wears in the portrait, stand out from the subdued grey background.
Photographs collected for the exhibit span a period of more than 80 years, the earliest one of Dickens and her brother dating from around 1917. Cleaning up old photos always requires a lot of work, especially when the goal is to enlarge them for an exhibit. For Schwarzenbach, “What’s really fun is when you have an old photo that is washed out and you can’t see the details, but through a quality scan and the magic of Photoshop you can restore those lost details.”
Developing the exhibit likewise let me explore and bring to light much more of the history of this remarkable physician that I briefly touched upon several decades ago. I expected to learn more about Dickens’ tremendous contributions to family planning. I had no idea of the breadth and depth of her work in cancer prevention. Nor did I know that early on, she had championed tuberculosis screening, a campaign she took to Black communities in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago.
A model of grit and grace, Dickens set the bar high. Her story, visible to everyone who visits Stemmler Hall is one of triumph in the face of socioeconomic challenges and intersecting racial and gender biases through conviction and hard work. It inspires us to continue her life’s work of advancing health and dismantling racism and bias in pursuit of health equity.
Repair and Removal
Preparing the photos for the exhibit often meant tidying them, both for the quality of the images and for modern health sensibilities.
In the top photo, taken at a Philadelphia Academy of Medicine and Allied Science Testimonial Banquet on May 30, 1939, note the tear above Dickens’ head, the wrinkles in the bottom left, and the cigarette dangling over the back of a chair — all gone in the bottom photo.
“Dr. Dickens is the only woman among the more than 50 people in that picture. Even if the environment at that event were friendly, it must have taken courage and confidence to be a member of that group.”—Michael Ostap, PhD
Photo courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center