Ethel D. Allen

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Ethel D. Allen
Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
In office
January 16, 1979 – October 31, 1979
Governor Dick Thornburgh
Preceded by Barton Fields
Succeeded by William Davis
Member of the Philadelphia City Council from the At-Large District
In office
January 5, 1976 – January 16, 1979
Preceded by Tom Foglietta
Succeeded by Joan Specter
Member of the Philadelphia City Council from the 5th District
In office
January 3, 1972 – January 5, 1976
Preceded by Thomas McIntosh
Succeeded by Cecil B. Moore
Personal details
Born (1929-05-08)May 8, 1929
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died December 16, 1981(1981-12-16) (aged 52)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Political party Republican
Alma mater West Virginia State College
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Profession Doctor, Politician

Ethel D. Allen, D.O. (May 8, 1929 – December 16, 1981)[1] was an African-American Republican politician and physician who served in the Pennsylvania state cabinet as Secretary of the Commonwealth.

Early life and education[edit]

Allen was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She studied at West Virginia State College, where she majored in chemistry and biology with a minor in mathematics, and went on to earn her Doctor of Osteopathy from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1963.[2]

While her parents were active in local Democratic politics, Allen eventually became a Republican volunteer, working for a variety of campaigns, including that of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. She would jokingly describe herself as a "B.F.R. - a black, female Republican, an entity as rare as a black elephant and just as smart."[3]

Professional career[edit]

As a self-described "ghetto practitioner," Allen worked in difficult and often dangerous circumstances in some of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. At one point, she was lured to a false house call and found herself the target of a robbery. Four men had surrounded her, hoping to get drugs from her medical bag, but she escaped safely after wielding her gun and sending the would-be robbers running.[2]

Political career[edit]

Philadelphia City Council[edit]

Allen decided that the best way for her to combat the crime she saw as a practicing physician was to become more involved in politics. In 1971, she ran for Philadelphia City Council. That year, buoyed by a series of strong debate performances, she unseated incumbent Democratic Councilman Thomas McIntosh in the Fifth District. With her election, she became the first African-American woman to serve on city council.[1] During her tenure, Allen sponsored legislation that resulted in the creation of the Philadelphia Youth Commission to help address issues with urban gangs.[4]

In 1975, Allen decided to seek re-election to Council, but this time ran for one of Council's at-large seats. She won one of the two seats reserved for nonmembers of the majority Democratic Party, taking over the seat vacated by Tom Foglietta, who was the party's nominee for Mayor in that year's election. While on Council, Allen was known as a tough, outspoken politician, often clashing with Mayor Frank Rizzo and Council President George Schwartz.[1] As her local profile rose, so too did her national presence rise. At the 1976 Republican National Convention, Allen gave the seconding speech in support of President Gerald Ford's nomination.[2]

Secretary of the Commonwealth[edit]

In January 1979, incoming Governor Dick Thornburgh named Allen his choice for Secretary of the Commonwealth.[5] Allen had reportedly told city Republican leaders that she would turn-down Thornburgh's offer if they assured her that she would have an unobstructed path to the party's nomination for that year's Mayoral election; when she did not receive such assurances, she accepted Thornburgh's offer.[1]

In October of that year, Thornburgh's cabinet was rocked by several resignations. Two officials–the Secretary of Health and the Secretary of Labor–had resigned due to discomfort in government and an inability to work effectively with their colleagues. As a result of the increased scrutiny put on his cabinet, Thornburgh met with Allen to discuss allegations of absenteeism and impropriety that had been made against her. Allen was reportedly absent from her Harrisburg office for more than half of a 40-day period earlier that year, and had allegedly received honorariums for speeches that had been prepared by state employees. For her part, Allen asserted that her absences were necessary to effectively carry-out her duties, and that she had only used a state worker to merely help write two speeches for which she had earned a total of $1,000. These speeches, she asserted, represented only a small percentage of the number of speeches she had given since taking office.[1] Thornburgh, however asked Allen resign, and when she refused to do so, he fired her.[6] Two years earlier, Governor Milton Shapp had fired C. Delores Tucker, who was also serving as Secretary of the Commonwealth, for using public employees to assist in the preparation of speeches for which a fee was received.[7]

Later life[edit]

Allen's firing brought a significant backlash against Thornburgh from the African-American community and various civil rights groups. Some asserted that Allen was held to a different standard because of her skin color, gender, or both; others charged that the Governor's actions were politically motivated.[8]

Her dismissal from Thornburgh's cabinet brought an end to her political career. She would serve for just over one year as the Philadelphia School District's clinician with management responsibilities.[8] In December 1981, she died due to complications from double-bypass heart surgery.[1] While Allen never married and had no children,[1] her legacy as trailblazer survived her. She often encouraged African-Americans and women to seek political office; indeed, her friend Augusta Clark would later become the second African-American woman to serve on Philadelphia City Council, eventually becoming the Democratic Majority Whip.[8][9][10] The Philadelphia School District later renamed one of its elementary schools in her honor.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Ethel D. Allen". Biographies. Retrieved February 15, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c "Dr. Ethel D. Allen". Changing The Face Of Medicine. The U.S. National Library At The National Institutes Of Health. Retrieved February 15, 2012. 
  3. ^ "Dr. Ethel Allen Dies; Held Pennsylvania Job". The New York Times. December 18, 1981. Retrieved February 15, 2012. 
  4. ^ "Women in Medicine: A Legacy of Achievement" (PDF). PCOM Digest. Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. 2008. p. 11. Retrieved 22 October 2014. 
  5. ^ "Three Tabbed By Thornburgh". The Reading Eagle. January 2, 1979. Retrieved February 15, 2012. 
  6. ^ Taylor, John (October 31, 1979). "Third Cabinet Member Fired". The Pittsburgh Press. Retrieved February 15, 2012. 
  7. ^ "State secretary Tucker fired by Shapp" (PDF). The Daily Collegian. September 22, 1977. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 9, 2012. Retrieved February 18, 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c Scott, Donald, Sr. "Allen, Ethel D.". African American National Biography. The Oxford African American Studies Center. Retrieved February 15, 2012. 
  9. ^ "Former Philly Councilwoman Augusta Clark Dies at 81". WCAU. 2013-10-14. Retrieved 2013-11-23. 
  10. ^ Steele, Alison (2013-10-15). "Former city leader "Gussie" Clark remembered". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 2013-11-23. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Barton Fields
Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Succeeded by
William Davis
Philadelphia City Council
Preceded by
Tom Foglietta
Member of the Philadelphia City Council for the At-Large District
Succeeded by
Joan Specter
Preceded by
Thomas McIntosh
Member of the Philadelphia City Council for the 5th District
Succeeded by
Cecil B. Moore