Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens Henderson

Even as a child, Helen Octavia Dickens knew she wanted to be a doctor even though she had many odds stacked against her as a black woman born in 1909. Helen’s father was born into slavery then raised by a Union Colonel from the age of nine. After obtaining his freedom, he named himself Charles Warren Dickens, after the famous author he once met. Helen Octavia Dickens was born in Dayton on February 21st, 1909.

Helen’s father Charles had dreams of becoming a lawyer, but when racial prejudice reared its ugly head, preventing his dream, he took a job as a janitor to support his family. He never lost hope in the future for his children and sent them to one of the few integrated schools in the area to get them the best education possible. Daisy Dickens, Helen’s mother, worked as a domestic servant until she married Charles. Despite Charles insisting his wife stay at home, he encouraged Helen to become a nurse. But Helen had different plans. If she could be a nurse, Helen reasoned, she could also be a doctor. “It was what I wanted to do and I didn’t see why I couldn’t do it.” she’d say.

Many obstacles stood in her way, but she persevered. Helen’s hard work paid off in 1934 when she graduated from University of Illinois Medical School. In her class, she was one of only three non-white students and one of only two women. Helen was the first black woman to graduate as a physician. Helen completed her internship at Provident Hospital, a black hospital in south Chicago.

Dr. Helen Dickens started her career in medicine providing care to patients who would otherwise have no way to obtain treatment. She once visited a house without electricity to deliver a baby and had to drag the bed over to a window to see by the light of a streetlight outside. She continued her time serving underserved patients. During this time, she decided she wanted to pursue Obstetrics and Gynecology full time and returned to Provident to expand her education.

After she married fellow resident, Dr. Purvis Sinclair Henderson, they moved together to New York City and she began a residency at Harlem Hospital, left to get a Masters of Science degree, then returned to Harlem Hospital. She later became the first black woman to be named a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

During her career, Helen centered her focus on addressing the Women’s Health issues she saw most frequently in her practice. She sought to educate young women about their fertility and sexual health, filling in the gaps that Public Education leaves. Her work resulted in intervention strategies to reduce the incidence of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Helen taught at the University of Pennsylvania and used her position as Dean of the Office for Minority Affairs to encourage minority students to pursue medical careers. Minority student enrollment increased from three students to sixty-four in a five-year span. Helen was named Professor Emeritus in 1985.

Throughout her professional career, Helen accomplished so much, including:

  • Director of teen clinic at the University of Pennsylvania for inner-city school-age mothers
  • Initiated a project that brought temporary cancer detection facilities into Philadelphia’s inner city
  • Implemented a project funded by the National Institutes of Health encouraging doctors to perform pap smears to test for cervical cancer
  • Member of many professional societies, including serving on the board for the American Cancer Society and Children’s Aid Society
  • Distinguished Alumni Award from University of Illinois Medical School
  • In 1999, Penn Medical dedicated the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women’s Health in honor of the fifty years she spent dedicated to helping women.

Much of what is known about Women’s Health visits and preventive screening is thanks to Dr. Helen Dickens. Her advice to women everywhere can be summed up in a quote to the Philadelphia Tribune, “Follow your dream. You got two feet and a head? Keep going.

Dr. Helen Dickens died in 2001, at age 92. She is buried next to her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.

Special thanks to our reader Sarah Clark for suggesting we write about the good Dr. Dickens!

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