Dr. Helen Davies: The Singing Professor


For Women’s History Month, Holman Biotech Commons highlights the singing professor of Penn: Dr. Helen Conrad Davies (1925-2022), the first woman to receive a faculty appointment in the department of Microbiology.

Davies became part of Penn’s faculty in 1960 as an assistant professor of physical biochemistry after receiving her Ph.D. from Penn. She was the first female faculty member in that department, and she was the first female to become a full professor of microbiology at Penn. While she was teaching microbiology, she taught students about diseases by using popular songs. For example, Davies used the Beatles’ song Yesterday to learn more about Leprosy:


Bits and pieces falling off of me

But it isn’t the toxicity

It’s just neglect of injury


I’m not half the man I used to be

Can’t feel anything peripherally

From swollen nerves, hypersensitivity

Why don’t lerpae grow in vitro we cannot say

In vivo they grow very slow, once in 12 days

Hard to get,

But the stigma hasn’t faded yet

Don’t keep an armadillo as a pet,

Don’t forget…

Davies was also known as a social activist by marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and mentoring minorities from Cheyney State College, now Cheyney University. She was also part of founding the Association for Women in Science and the Woman for Equal Opportunity at the University of Pennsylvania.

Further Reading:

Miles, G. (2022, March 30). Helen Conrad Davies, celebrated scientist, ‘singing professor’ of microbiology, and social justice activist, dies at 97. The Philadelphia Inquirer. https://www.inquirer.com/obituaries/helen-conrad-davies-obituary-penn-microbiology-professor-20220330.html

Helen Davies: An Infectious Passion for Teaching, 50 years and Counting. (n.d.). CAMB Student Newsletter. https://cambnewsletter.wixsite.com/blog/single-post/2018/08/25/helen-davies-an-infectious-passion-for-teaching-50-years-and-counting

Testimonial honors dr. Helen C. davies. (1976, May 25). Philadelphia Tribune (1912-) Retrieved from https://proxy.library.upenn.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/testimonial-honors-dr-helen-c-davies/docview/532744058/se-2

Perloff, C. B. (2020). 1920-2020: Profiles of Women in Medicine. Penn Medicine News. https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/publications-and-special-projects/penn-medicine-magazine/fall-2020/profiles-of-women-in-medicine

Del Piccolo, N. (2023, March 6). In Memoriam: Helen Davies. ASBMBTODAY. https://www.asbmb.org/asbmb-today/people/030623/in-memoriam-helen-davies

Merging Microbiology and Music: Penn Professor Receives Distinguished Teacher Award. (2006, October 26). Penn Medicine News. https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-releases/2006/october/merging-microbiology-and-music?_gl=1*o90cf4*_ga*MTUyNjAyMjUwNS4xNjc1OTU4NDUx*_ga_0KEBEGRYB0*MTY3ODk2MTkwMC4xLjAuMTY3ODk2MTkwMS41OS4wLjA.&_g

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