Helen Octavia Dickens: An expanded view of a trailblazing OB-GYN

Last year, with renewed attention to the legacy of racism in the field of obstetrics and gynecology, Penn Medicine’s department took down a painting that depicted a 19th-century physician performing a procedure, assisted by a Black woman who is thought to be enslaved. An effort initiated by Penn OB-GYN residents and medical students, meanwhile, gained unanimous support across departments to rename a retractor tool that bears the name of another gynecologist, a founder in the field known to conduct experiments on enslaved and unwilling Black women.

Helen O. Dickens in a white coat at her work desk.
Dickens, a physician and advocate for women’s health, preventive care, and health equity for Black women and girls, was influential in her profession from the 1930s until her death in 2001. Now, an expanded portrait display honors more of her life and work and features photos not widely seen, such as this image by G. Marshall Wilson in 1947. (Image: Courtesy of Dickens’ daughter, Jayne Henderson Brown.)

More recently, the portrait of Helen Octavia Dickens found a new home in Stemmler Hall, surrounded by a new, expanded display recognizing her life, career, and legacy.

Dickens was not only the first African American woman faculty member in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Penn, but a vital leader in the community advocating for preventive health for women and teen girls of color.

The portrait of Dickens on display since 1992 was painted by her friend, accomplished artist and dermatologist Bernett Johnson Jr. Its move to Stemmler Hall and expanded interpretive context were a first major change initiated by the Perelman School of Medicine’s Portrait Committee, established as an advisory group to the dean in 2020 as part of a broader goal to address and advance diversity.

Dickens arrived in Philadelphia in 1935 after graduating from the University of Illinois School of Medicine as one of three women and the only African American woman in her class. She assisted Virginia Alexander at the Aspiranto Health Home, a six-bed hospital and clinic located in Alexander’s North Philadelphia row house. Within two years, Alexander left to pursue further education and Dickens took over the clinic and heavy load of home deliveries, and joined the staff of Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, the city’s first African American–run hospital. The time launched her life’s work serving the city’s poor Black community.

A lot happened in the six years between 1941 and 1947. Despite being told she might not be happy at Penn’s Graduate School of Medicine during her admissions interview, Dickens matriculated there and became its first African American woman to earn the Master of Medical Science degree.

Dickens made her mark in cancer prevention and education in the late 1940s, in particular as a crusader for Pap smear testing. This was on top of her private practice and, in 1948, appointment as director of OB-GYN at the newly merged Mercy Douglass Hospital, where she created residency-training opportunities for Black physicians. Dickens lobbied doctors throughout Pennsylvania to offer the Pap test and taught 200 Black physicians how to perform it. Equally important, she addressed reluctance within the Black community for women to have pelvic exams and Pap smears due to fears of sterilization, a concern rooted in generations of mistrust in the medical profession from non-consensual experimentation on Black individuals.

In 1965, Dickens became the first African American woman faculty member in OB-GYN at Penn. She continued her advocacy for cancer education and made trailblazing contributions to family planning, addressing teen pregnancy and sexual health issues within Philadelphia’s Black community.

This story is by Rachel Ewing and Carol Benenson Perloff. Read more at Penn Medicine News.