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A Special Daily Resource Shared by Kerry Ruff

Thursday, February 18th, 2021




Helen Octavia Dickens was born on February 21, 1909 in Dayton, Ohio to Charles and Daisy Dickens. Her father Charles was a former slave and water boy during the Civil War and was raised by a Union colonel from the age of 9. After meeting the British novelist, Charles would take the name Charles Dickens. Charles was self-educated and attended college before meeting Daisy and moving to Ohio. Daisy was originally from Canada and was a domestic servant to a family that manufactured paper. Both of Helen’s parents understood the importance of education and only sent her to desegregated schools growing up so she could have a better education. She graduated from high school at the age of 17 by taking night classes and earned a full tuition scholarship to Crane Junior College in Chicago where she studied pre-medical classes. As both a black student and a woman, she faced great adversity by her peers but that did not stop her from continuing her education. In 1932, she graduated from the University of Illinois and received her M.D in 1934 from the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Helen treated tuberculosis among the poor in Chicago but became a resident in Obstetrics. She worked for Virginia M. Alexander who founded the Aspiranto Health Home, which was a three-story North Philadelphia house. Helen provided gynecological and obstetric care as well as general practice, working with the poor and underprivileged people. Ms. Dickens went to deliver a baby at a house that had no electricity, so she moved the bed so she could perform the delivery using the light from the street. After 7 years, Helen moved on to further her education in gynecology and obstetrics so in 1943, she attended the University of Pennsylvania where she received her master’s degree in Medical Science. Helen was not only one of two women in the graduating class but also the only African American woman. She passed the board examinations and became the first African American board-certified OB/GYN in Philadelphia. She finished her residency in 1946 at Harlem Hospital in New York City and became certified by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In 1948, Ms. Helen Dickens became director of the Department of OB/GYN at Philadelphia’s racially segregated Mercy Douglass hospital where she remained until 1967. Helen founded and opened a clinic at Penn that was devoted to helping and supporting teen parents. The following services were offered; group counseling, therapy, education and most importantly, prenatal care. She wanted to educate the young mothers on STDs and created a program that was funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) to carry out pap tests to detect cervical cancer.  In 1969, Ms. Dickens was named the dean for minority admissions at Penn and over the course of 5 years, she helped increase the number of minority students at Penn from 3 to 64. Helen published and contributed chapters to several books on teen pregnancy and prevention and adolescent health issues. She received a lot of awards in recognition for her work. In 1991, she was awarded the most prestigious award at the Penn’s Women of Color celebration and the award was named after her, Dr. Helen O. Dickens Lifetime Achievement Award. Today we honor the woman who used her platform as a physician, health advocate, health administrator and educator to provide better healthcare to the African American community. She fought segregation in the medicine field to better motivate and educate younger generations. Thank you. Happy Black History Month.


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