Helen Octavia Dickens

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Helen Octavia Dickens
Helen Octavia Dickens.jpg
Born (1909-02-21)February 21, 1909
Dayton, Ohio
Died 2001
Education Malcolm X College
University of Illinois
Occupation Surgeon
Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Medical career
Institutions Mercy Douglass Hospital

Helen Octavia Dickens (1909–2001) was the first African-American woman to be admitted to the American College of Surgeons. She was a doctor, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and former associate dean of medicine.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Helen Dickens was born on February 21, 1909, in Dayton, Ohio, the daughter of a former slave. Her parents encouraged her to attend desegregated schools in order to get a good education. During her time at Crane Junior College, she sat at the front of her classes, to avoid the racist comments and gestures aimed at her by fellow students.

She achieved her B.S. from University of Illinois in 1932, and her M.D.in 1934. She was one of two women in her class and was the only African-American woman in her class. Helen benefited from the help of notable African-American mentors, and was helped by Dr. Elizabeth Hill to register to the University of Illinois.


Helen Dickens interned at Chicago's Provident Hospital for two years, treating tuberculosis among the poor, and then became a resident in Obstetrics. She was drawn to Virginia M. Alexander, who founded the Aspiranto Health Home, which was based in a three storey North Philadelphia house. During this time she provided gynecological and obstetric care as well as general practice. She worked with poor and underprivileged people, in very difficult conditions. For example, in one instance, she arrived at the home of a woman in labor to find that there was no electricity. The bed had to be moved so the delivery could be carried out using the light from the street. To address such problems, Dr. Alexander installed four beds at the Aspiranto.

After working there for seven years, she wanted to further her education in gynecology and obstetrics, and spent a year at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She passed the board examinations and became the first female African American board-certified Ob/gyn in Philadelphia.[2]

In 1943, Dickens was accepted into a residency at Harlem Hospital in New York City.[3] She finished her residency in 1946, and was certified by the American college of obstetricians and gynecologists in the same year.

In 1948, she became director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Philadelphia's racially segregated Mercy Douglass hospital, where she remained until 1967.

Research and campaign work[edit]

Helen Dickens had a special interest in helping teenage pregnancy. In 1967 she opened a clinic that specialized in helping and supporting teen parents. The clinic offered group counseling, therapy, education, and prenatal care.[4] She also did extensive research into teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, using her knowledge and results of her research to educate young mothers.

She also did a lot of work in cancer services and education. Dickens instigated a program, funded by the National Institute of Health, to carry out pap tests to detect cervical cancer.[5]

She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1986.[6]


  1. ^ "Helen O. Dickens pioneered in medicine". African American Registry. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 
  2. ^ "Helen Octavia Dickens". The UPenn Black History Project. 
  3. ^ Notable Black American Women, Book 2. Thomson Gale. 1996. ISBN 0810391775. 
  4. ^ "A guide to Helen Octavia Dickens" (PDF). University Of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 
  5. ^ "Dr. Helen Dickens: A Lifetime of Healing and Helping". Archived from the original on 29 October 2013. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 
  6. ^ "CANDACE AWARD RECIPIENTS 1982-1990, Page 2". National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Archived from the original on March 14, 2003. 

External links[edit]