Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens

Dr. Helen Dickens began her medical career by providing care to those who had no means to obtain treatment. Once, as she visited a house without electricity, she had to drag a bed to the window to deliver a baby by the light from the streetlight outside. Because her parents had struggled to make a living in low-paying jobs, they insisted that their daughter receive a good education. She attended a desegregated high school, applied to the best schools and hospitals and was not intimidated by the idea of training at predominantly white schools. In 1934, when she earned her M.D. from the University of Illinois, Dr. Helen Dickens was the only African American woman in her class. She completed her internship at Provident, a black hospital on the south side of Chicago. Working among the poor, she treated tuberculosis and provided obstetric and gynecological care. Moving to Philadelphia, Dr. Dickens worked for six years at Aspiranto Health Home, treating patients living in poverty, with little access to medical care. To expand her training in obstetrics and gynecology, she returned to Provident Hospital in Chicago. In 1943, she married a fellow resident, Dr. Purvis Sinclair Henderson. They moved to New York City and Dr. Dickens began a residency at Harlem Hospital. She left to get a Master of Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania, then returned to complete her residency at Harlem in 1946. Four years later, Dr. Helen Dickens became the first African American woman to be named a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Throughout her career, Dr. Dickens focused on the problems she had seen in her obstetrics and gynecology practice. She wanted to educate young women to give them the knowledge to control their fertility and sexual health. Her extensive research resulted in intervention strategies to help schools, parents, and health professionals reduce the incidence of teen pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases. Moving back to Philadelphia, Dr. Dickens taught at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1969, she was appointed Dean of the Office for Minority Affairs. In that role, she reached out to minority students to encourage them to pursue medical careers. Thanks largely to her efforts, minority student enrollment increased from just three students to sixty-four within five years. In 1985, Dr. Helen Dickens was named Professor Emeritus.