In 1950, Helen Dickens, MD was the first African American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons. The daughter of a former slave, she would sit at the front of the class in medical school so that she would not be bothered by the racist comments and gestures made by her classmates. By 1969 she was associate dean in the Office for Minority Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania, and within five years had increased minority enrollment from three students to sixty-four.
Helen Octavia Dickens was born in 1909, in Dayton, Ohio. Her father, Charles Warren Dickens, a former slave and water boy during the Civil War, was raised by a Union colonel from the age of 9. A self-educated man, he took the name Charles Dickens after meeting the famous english novelist. Although he had “read law” and had a keen intellect, prejudice confined him to janitorial work. Her mother, Daisy Jane Dickens, was a domestic servant to the Reynolds family of paper manufacturers.
Because both her parents had struggled to make a living in low-paying jobs, they insisted that Helen receive a good education and follow a professional career, and with their encouragement she attended a desegregated high school. As a young adult, Helen Dickens continued to apply to the best schools and hospitals, refusing to be intimidated at predominantly white institutions. Inspired by the achievements of other African American women who had gone before her, she benefited from the practical advice and support of such mentors. Dr. Elizabeth Hill, the first African American physician to graduate from the University of Illinois, helped her to register for medical school. Helen Dickens earned her M.D. degree at the same institution in 1934, the only African-American woman in her class.
Dickens completed her internship at Provident, a black hospital on the south side of Chicago, treating tuberculosis among the poor. She was discouraged by the lack of community done by medical residents, and relished the opportunity to move away to her first job, at Virginia Alexander’s Aspiranto Health Home in Philadelphia in 1935.
In addition to her general practice, Dr. Dickens provided obstetric and gynecologic care. Once again, she worked in difficult circumstances to help her patients living in extreme poverty. In one instance, she arrived at the home of a woman in labor to find that there was no electricity. She had to move the bed to the window to conduct the delivery by streetlight. To address such problems, Dr. Alexander installed four beds at the three-story row house serving as the Aspiranto Health Home.
After six years working at Aspiranto, Dr. Dickens decided to expand her training in obstetrics and gynecology, returning to Provident Hospital for a specialist residency. In 1943, she married Purvis Sinclair Henderson, a fellow resident, and moved to Harlem Hospital in New York City to work under the guidance of esteemed surgeon and internist, Peter Marshall Murray. In 1945 she received her master of science degree from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and in 1946 she completed her residency at Harlem and was certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Dr. Dickens returned to Philadelphia in 1948 as director of the Mercy Douglass Hospital Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and, in 1950, became the first African American-woman fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Toward the end of her directorship in the late 1960s, Dickens also taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Over the next twenty years, she rose through the ranks, from instructor, through to professor, culminating in her appointment as professor emeritus in 1985. At the same time, she served on the staff of the Woman’s Hospital in Philadelphia and later, the faculty of the Medical College of Pennsylvania.
In patient care, Dr. Dickens concentrated on preventing some of the problems she had seen so frequently in her obstetrics and gynecology practice. Hoping to educate young women to empower themselves, she led extensive research into teen pregnancy and sexual health issues. She used the results of her wide-ranging survey to advise schools, parents, and health professionals on intervention strategies to lower the incidence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. She received numerous honors for her work on sexual health for young and adult women, including awards from the Girl Scouts of Greater Philadelphia and the American Cancer Society. Her own daughter, Dr. Jayne Henderson Brown, has followed in her footsteps and practices, as her mother did, in Philadelphia.