Black History Month: Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens

For Black History Month, Holman Biotech Commons will highlight some prominent African American health professionals who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and associates with Philadelphia.

Today, we will highlight, Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens (1909-2001). Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens was born in 1909 in Dayton, Ohio to a former slave and a homemaker.  After graduating from high school, she attended Crane Junior College, now known as Malcolm X College. She graduated in 1934 from the University of Illinois School of Medicine in Chicago, the only African American woman in her graduating class. She started practicing medicine in Chicago at Providence Hospital and started her at-home practice with Dr. Virginia Alexander in Philadelphia. In 1945, Dickens became the first African American woman to become board certified in obstetrics and gynecology in Philadelphia and became director of the obstetrics and gynecology department for the Mercy Douglass Hospital.

Dickens became the first African American woman to become a doctor and professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the School of Medicine. Dickens had interests in helping the community. She founded a health clinic for young mothers in Philadelphia and implemented programs for cancer education and prevention for the community. Along with working in medicine, she was named associate dean of minority admissions at Penn, increasing the enrollment of minority students from two to sixty-four. Dickens was a member of many local and national professional associations and was a recipient of numerous awards, including American Women of the Year, and the Gimbel Philadelphia Award.

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