The history, and future, of Black doctors at Penn

Students come to the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) eager to learn the art and science of medicine. To become truly well-rounded doctors, though, they are wise to also study history—including the contributions that Black students, physicians have made to Penn Medicine, the city of Philadelphia, and the profession as a whole. Because for far too long, so many important figures in medical history were overlooked or underappreciated, despite the extra hardships they overcame to succeed based on their marginalized backgrounds.

Three masked workers hang a portrait of Helen Octavia Dickens on the wall.
The expanded exhibit and new home for Helen Octavia Dickens’ portrait were installed in late August 2021 and dedicated in early December. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

Standout students and physicians like Nathan Francis Mossell, James Derham, Arlene Bennett, and Helen Octavia Dickens are recently highlighted in Penn Medicine magazine. Derham, who is considered the first Black physician in the United States, was enslaved from the time of his birth and over the years by various doctors who trained him in medicine. Mossell took second honors in his graduating class in 1879 but trained overseas in Europe after graduation, as it was easier for Black physicians to train overseas, before returning to Philadelphia in 1888 and was elected to the Philadelphia County Medical Society.

In 1964, Bennett graduated from Penn. She had joined the United States Air Force as a radio mechanic so she could attend college through the G.I Bill. One of only six women in her class at Penn (and the only woman of color), after her graduation she went on to become a successful psychiatrist in private practice which included a stint in Community Mental Health at Pennsylvania Hospital. And in 1969, Dickens became the medical school’s first African-American female full professor. She also established the Office of Minority Affairs in 1969, serving as associate dean, and within five years had increased minority enrollment from three students to 64. The founding of that office has preserved the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion up to today.

Building off that commitment, in 2013, Eve Higginbotham was named the first Vice Dean for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity at PSOM’s renamed Office of Minority Affairs, highlighting the importance of an institutional climate in building a more diverse PSOM community. The office coordinates and interacts with a number of programs aimed at building a culture of inclusion, including Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Learner Experience Program in Medical Education led by Horace DeLisser, an associate professor of medicine and associate dean for Diversity and Inclusion.

Together with Dwaine Duckett, the first Black vice president for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Higginbotham serves as a leader of the Action for Cultural Transformation, which seeks to transform Penn Medicine into an antiracist, equitable, diverse, and inclusive institution.

This story is by Meredith Mann. Read more at Penn Medicine News.