Friends and colleagues termed Helen Aird Dickie "a giant in Wisconsin medicine." She was a pioneer in the detection and treatment of tuberculosis, and identified a disease among Wisconsin farmers, which she called "farmer's lung," that involves a hypersensitivity alveolitis caused by exposure to fermented moldy hay. She also devised a means for its prevention. Spending most of her career in the Department of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, she earned national renown for her work on pulmonary disorders.
Born in 1913, Helen Dickie grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin. "My parents both were teachers and encouraged me to get an education," she later noted. And having always been "scientifically-oriented," Dickie was determined to pursue a career in medicine.
After receiving her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1935, she went on to earn a medical degree there, graduating first in her class in 1937. Following post-graduate training in internal medicine and pulmonary disease at the Los Angeles County Hospital and Wisconsin general hospitals between 1937 and 1942, Dr. Dickie returned to the University of Wisconsin Medical School. In 1943, she was appointed an instructor of Medicine and Student Health. Rising through the ranks, she was promoted to professor in 1955 and went on to head the Pulmonary Section at the Medical School from 1973 to 1983
When Dr. Dickie first joined the faculty, Wisconsin's medical and nursing schools sometimes lost students to tuberculosis. Dr. Dickie became a leader in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of the disease, working tirelessly to detect and treat students exposed to it, and succeeding in virtually eradicating it from the campus. Over the next decade, she teamed up with her friend and colleague, Professor John Rankin, to identify another crippling disease then existing among Wisconsin farmers. Terming the disease "farmer's lung," they distinguished its characteristics from similar ailments, identify its cause, and devised means for its prevention. It addition to this achievement, for which she won national acclaim, she published widely on diseases of the lung and became the mentor for a generation of specialists in pulmonary medicine.
Dr. Dickie received numerous professional honors. In 1974, she was named Master of the American College of Physicians and in 1983 became one of the first two women to receive the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical Alumni Citation. In 1986, the American Lung Association named her to their Senior Council. A member of numerous professional societies, Dickie also served on boards, committees and task forces dedicated to studying pulmonary and respiratory diseases. Dickie was particularly proud of her volunteer work for the American Lung Association of Wisconsin, and served as President of the Wisconsin Thoracic Society and the Mississippi Valley Thoracic Society. In addition, she became a consultant at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Madison and a chief of staff at University Hospitals.
After four decades as a faculty member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Dickie retired to the home in Madison that she shared with her twin sister, Ruth, also a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Here, she tended her large flower garden, indulging her enduring interest in gardening, wildlife, and conservation.