Skip to main content
Select Source:

Dickens, Helen Octavia

Helen Octavia Dickens

1909-2001

Physician, surgeon, educator

Helen Octavia Dickens served as a pioneer in the field of medicine. In 1945 she became the first female African-American to become board certified in obstetrics and gynecology in Philadelphia; five years later she became the first African-American woman admitted as a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. By 1956 she had become the first such woman to join the staff and faculty of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine.

Dickens led many changes at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1967 she helped to found and direct one of the country's first teen pregnancy clinics. She was recognized in the medical profession and education community for her research on the effects of intensive medical, psychological, educational, and social services intervention on pregnant, socially deprived teenagers, their families, and the fathers of the unborn children. Moreover, as associate dean of minority affairs, Dickens helped to recruit more minority students to the field of medicine at the university. Dickens remained dedicated to addressing issues of health care through her medical practice, hospital administration positions, teaching assignments, advocacy of women's health needs, and counseling of medical students for more than five decades.

Born to Former Slave

Helen Octavia Dickens was born in Dayton, Ohio, on February 21, 1909. The oldest of Charles and Daisy Jane Green Dickens's three children, she is their only surviving offspring. Dickens is the widow of Purvis Sinclair Henderson, who was a pediatric neurosurgeon, and the mother of Helen Jayne Henderson Brown and Norman Sinclair Henderson. Dickens's father, who had been a slave in Tennessee, was about nine years old when the Civil War ended. Given the discouraging and seemingly hopeless conditions of the time, he accepted the offer of a white family to relocate with them to Ohio. Dickens said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) on August 2, 1993, "My father thought they were going to educate him. They had no idea of educating him. He, nevertheless, learned to read and write by asking people on the street what words meant. When he was twenty he decided it was time to move on."

For a time, Charles Dickens, who sought to improve himself academically and economically, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin College. Subsequently, he moved to Dayton, where he met Helen Dickens's mother, Daisy Jane Green. Her family, originally from Canada, had migrated to Paulding, Ohio, then to Dayton. Daisy Jane Dickens was a homemaker at the insistence of her husband, who did not want her to work. Ironically, it was Charles Dickens who encouraged his daughter to pursue medicine—a career that, were she to marry, would necessarily keep her out of the home. Unfortunately, when Dickens was eight years old, her father died from an infection he developed after a dental extraction.

Dickens received her elementary and high school educations in Dayton, remaining faithful to her father's insistence that she attend integrated schools. Charles Dickens understood that a segregated education would put Dickens and her siblings at a disadvantage and would not prepare them for the challenges they would meet in the world at large. This was but a part of his larger philosophy of encouraging his children to keep their goals in mind at all times and to keep working to achieve them. This advice no doubt contributed to Dickens's determined spirit. For example, when she entered high school she realized that she would be 18 years old when she graduated. She stated in the August 2, 1993, interview: "I didn't want to graduate at 18, I wanted to do so at 17 which was the average high school age to graduate. I had to figure out how to graduate at 17. By going to night school and summer school I did in fact graduate in three years and at the age of 17."

Determined to Become a Doctor

Dickens had decided to pursue a medical career when she was approximately 12 years old. Her family was very supportive of her decision, and she was also encouraged in that direction by her family dentist and by Blanche Arnold, a secretary at the local YWCA. She continued in the interview with CBB: "Blanche had been to Africa and had thought of becoming a missionary. She saw that the missionaries sponsored by the YWCA who were physicians were the most helpful. I had no particular interest in being a missionary. But Blanche talked about physicians, and I came to realize that was my interest and that prospect my inspiration."

After high school Dickens was accepted at Crane Junior College in Chicago, where she enrolled in premedical courses. She explained to CBB, "Crane was a city college and thankfully I didn't have to pay tuition. At the time, people didn't make much money. My mother made only twenty-four dollars a week." Academic admission standards at Crane were very competitive but fortunately Dickens's grades qualified her. Crane also required that students be Chicago residents. She managed to meet that requirement by living with her maternal aunt, Pearl Williams. Though her financial burden was eased because she didn't have to pay tuition, Dickens worked occasionally at the local A&P grocery. While at Crane, Dickens kept diligently focused on her studies and pointedly ignored the racism of the student body and faculty. She continued in the interview: "I sat in the front seat. If other students wanted a good seat they had to sit beside me. If they didn't, it was not my concern because I could clearly see the professor and the blackboard as I was right up there. This way I didn't have to look at them or the gestures made that were directed against me or toward me."

At a Glance …

Born on February 21, 1909, in Dayton, OH; died on December 2, 2001, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Charles (former slave) and Daisy (homemaker); married Purvis Henderson, 1943 (died, 1961); children: Jayne H. Brown, Norman S. Henderson. Education: Crane Junior College, premedical courses; University of Illinois, BS, 1932, University of Illinois College of Medicine, MD, 1934; University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Medicine, MMSc, 1945.

Career: Mercy-Douglass Hospital, director, Dept of Ob/Gyn, 1948-67; Ob/Gyn Medical College of Pennsylvania, associate clinical professor, 1954-65; Women's Hospital, Dept of Ob/Gyn, chief of service, 1956-64; University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine, director of teen clinic, 1969-85; professor emeritus, associate dean, 1985-94.

Memberships: American College of Surgeons; The American College of Ob/Gyn; American Medical Assn.; American Cancer Society.

Awards: Gimbel Philadelphia Award, 1971; American Medical Woman of the Year; Daisy Lumpkin Award; Mercy Douglass Hospital Award; Delta Sigma Theta, Sadie Alexander Award; University of Pennsylvania, Helen O. Dickens Lifetime Achievement Award, established 1991; Helen O. Dickens Center for Women's Health at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, established 1998; Honorary Doctorates: Medical College of Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania.

Dickens went on to receive her bachelor of science degree in 1932 from the University of Illinois. In that year she entered the University of Illinois College of Medicine, where she was one of five women in a class of 137 medical students. In 1934 Dickens received her medical degree and was one of two women to graduate in her class. Dickens did her internship and a residency in obstetrics at Provident Hospital in Chicago from 1933 to 1935. She recalled that women interns or residents could not live in the medical quarters but had to share the nurses' quarters. Dickens gave a brief description of these years in the interview: "There were no demonstrations. If you wanted the job, you just took it as is. This was true for black women and white women. Provident was a black hospital located on the South side of Chicago. There was tremendous poverty and tuberculosis. The medical residents did not go out into the community much. We actually did more community medicine while in medical school. Even then the faculty went with you as a part of the training. We were very anxious to go into the community."

Began Her Practice

Shortly before completing her residency, Dickens saw a notice about a position in Philadelphia with Virginia Alexander, a Quaker who was practicing medicine alone. Dickens was impressed with Alexander's home practice because it provided an alternative to the usual home or hospital obstetrics care. It was there, on Jefferson Street, in a three-story row house called the Asparanto Health Home, that Dickens began her practice. She said in the interview: "When I started to practice I delivered babies at home. Sometimes there were difficulties delivering babies in the patients' homes. To assist with these problems, Dr. Alexander provided four beds at Asparanto. It was arranged similar to a hospital with a small room the size of a bathroom which was used as the delivery room. On a night when we went to deliver a woman at home, we found that there was no electricity. We pushed the bed to the window and used the street light."

After about a year, Dickens was left to carry on the practice alone since Alexander had decided to go to Howard University Medical College for a year. In addition to taking over the medical practice, Dickens assumed the care of Alexander's aged father. Fortunately, they both lived at the Asparanto home, and he could care for himself with the help of a housekeeper and a nurse provided by Alexander.

For approximately six years, Dickens was a general practitioner and provided obstetrical care with the support of only one nurse. She was persuaded that she particularly needed to know more about the obstetrical care that she was giving. She learned that the University of Pennsylvania graduate school of medicine offered a master's degree in medical science, and she thought this degree would help her secure a residency in obstetrics and gynecology. In 1941 Dickens enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine to study for a master's in medical science with a specialization in obstetrics and gynecology. "I went there for the year and did get a residency," she said in the interview. "Well, I didn't get the one I wanted at first. I went back to Provident, in Chicago, for a year."

In 1942, when Dickens returned to Provident Hospital, she met Purvis Sinclair Henderson, a resident in general surgery whose father had practiced medicine in Boston. In 1943, while both were still residents, they married. That same year, Dickens was accepted for a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Harlem Hospital in New York City. This was a residency that she avidly sought after hearing Peter Marshall Murray, a noted internist and surgeon, give a presentation at Provident Hospital. At the same time, Henderson had to consider returning to his practice in Savannah, Georgia. They agreed to support each other's careers and visit between Georgia and New York until their responsibilities were completed.

Became Prominent Doctor of Obstetrics and Gynecology

Dickens finished her residency at Harlem Hospital in 1946 and in that same year was certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1948 Dickens was appointed director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mercy Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia. It was one of the few hospitals in Philadelphia having both a racially integrated staff and patient population. Sexism was a persistent problem for women physicians at Mercy Douglass. Shortly after her appointment, Henderson joined her in Pennsylvania. He took a residency in neurology at the University of Pittsburgh and subsequently was a resident in neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania Medical College.

Dickens and her husband raised two children. Their daughter, Helen Jayne Brown, is an internist who practices in Philadelphia. Norman Sinclair Henderson works in the field of communications in the Washington, D.C., area. Purvis Henderson died in 1961 before he was able to witness his children's accomplishments.

In 1950, two years after her appointment to Mercy Douglass, Dickens became the first African-American woman to be admitted as a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. For this singular achievement, she was honored by the governor as a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania. In 1953 she became a fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and was later admitted as a fellow of the International College of Surgeons. Dickens served as director of obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy Douglass until 1967. She was also a member of the courtesy staff of the Women's Hospital in Philadelphia from 1951 to 1952 and an associate in that hospital's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology until 1956, when she became chief of the department, serving until 1964 when the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine acquired the Women's Hospital. Also during those years, Dickens held faculty appointments at the Medical College of Pennsylvania: between 1954 and 1957 she held the positions of clinical associate and assistant clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, and between 1958 and 1965 she was appointed associate clinical professor in the college's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Joined University of Pennsylvania

In 1965, Dickens began a long-standing relationship with the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and was appointed as an instructor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1966 she became an associate in the department. During the next ten years she was appointed assistant professor and then associate professor. Dickens was named professor of obstetrics and gynecology in 1976 and professor emeritus in 1985. Dickens was appointed associate dean of Minority Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1969, becoming the first such titleholder in the nation. From 1967 to 1985 she was director of the School of Medicine's Teen Clinic in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, one of the first such clinics in the country.

Dickens's specialization led her to pursue research in the area of women's illnesses. In particular, her studies were concerned with the prevention of vaginal cancer. Dickens was also seriously concerned about the treatment of pregnant teenagers in obstetrics and gynecology clinics. In 1970, while director of the Teen Clinic, Dickens initiated a comparative study of pregnant teenagers' prenatal and postnatal behaviors in the prenatal clinic and teenage obstetrical clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. She sought to determine whether more intensive therapeutic intervention would improve these behaviors.

The study strongly suggested the importance of educational intervention with younger teens, most especially by their families, the schools, and the community at large. In 1972, as a result of the study, funds from a private foundation were used to support a follow-up program in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dickens continued to examine the phenomenon of teen pregnancy and published extensively on the subject until the end of her career. Dickens's articles on teen pregnancy and issues related to obstetrics, gynecology, and public health appeared in Pan American Medical Women's Journal, American Practice and Diagnosis of Treatment, American Journal of OB/GYN, American Journal of Public Health, Journal of Marriage and Family Counseling, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, and Women's Wellness. She also contributed chapters to several books concerning adolescent health problems, particularly as they relate to teenage pregnancy and prevention. Dickens lectured extensively in her areas of expertise. She was a consultant for the video documentary Loving Parents, produced in 1978 by Herman J. Engle for Texture Films, Inc., and a member of the Senior Science Advisory Group of the Health Information Network for their publication "The Facts about AIDS—A Special Guide for NEA Members." Throughout her career she remained focused on prevention, especially in light of the possible relationship between cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, and AIDS in women. "I don't know if they are as aware of that relationship as they should be," Dickens said in the 1993 interview. "I guess that will come along with more education and more time." Dickens understood that her quest would be carried on by those who followed her.

Served as Inspiration

Since developing the Office of Minority Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1968, Dickens had worked to provide academic counseling to minority students. In 1984, Karen Hamilton, the assistant dean of student affairs and the then-director of minority affairs, began a particularly productive collaboration with Dickens. Their efforts have resulted in a 98.5 percent minority student retention rate. Dickens left the University in the early 1990s a much more integrated place than she found it so many decades before.

Dickens had a distinguished career. She received numerous awards for her studies of uterine cancer, teaching and academic counseling, advocacy of women's health needs, and committee service. She was presented with awards by the American Medical Women's Association, the Board of Auxiliaries of Mercy Douglass Hospital, the American Cancer Society, the University of Illinois Alumni Association, the National Association of Medical Minority Educators, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the National Council of Negro Women, the Girl Scouts of Greater Philadelphia, and the Frederick Douglass Society. In 1990, on their Founder's Day, Dickens was inducted into the Women Pioneers Hall of Fame by the Southwest Belmont Branch YWCA of Philadelphia. In 1992 she was warmly honored by the University of Pennsylvania minority alumni, faculty, housestaff, and students. In 1998 the University of Pennsylvania renamed one of its clinics in her honor: the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women's Health.

Among her many awards from the medical profession are an honorary Doctor of Medical Science degree, which she received from the Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1979, and an honorary doctor of science degree, which the University of Pennsylvania awarded her in 1982. Dickens held membership in numerous national societies, among them the American College of Surgeons, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Medical Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the American Cancer Society. Dickens was also a member of local societies, including the Philadelphia County Medical Society, the Obstetrical Society of Philadelphia, the Children's Aid Society, and the American Foundation for Negro Affairs.

After nearly 50 years of medical practice, Dickens stopped teaching in the early 1990s and stopped seeing patients in 1994. Yet she continued to offer admissions counseling to minority applicants for some time. Living her life with purpose and conviction, Dickens was an inspiration and a positive role model for decades. She died of complications of a stroke at the age of 92 on December 2, 2001.

Sources

Books

Adolescent Gynecology. Edited by Alfred M. Bongiovanni, Plenum Publishing Corporation, 1983.

Marital and Sexual Counseling in Medical Practice. Edited by D. W. Abse, E. M. Nash, and L. M. R. Lauden. Haggerstown, Md.: Harper Row, 1974.

Periodicals

American Journal of Public Health, September 1973, p. 9.

Center for the Study of Aging Newsletter, Fall 1987, pp. 1, 4, 6, 10.

Journal of the American Medical Women's Association, January 1963, pp. 81-88.

Journal of Marriage and Family Counseling, April 1975, pp. 175-81.

Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2001, p. B21.

New Lady, June 4, 1971, pp. 29, 33-34.

OB/GYN News, July 1, 1974.

Penn Medicine, Fall 1990, pp. 9-15.

Philadelphia Evening News Bulletin, January 14, 1971.

Philadelphia Inquirer, December 6, 2001, p. B7.

On-line

"Guide, Helen O. Dickens Papers," University of Pennsylvania,http://www.archives.upenn.edu/faids/upt/upt50/dickensho.html (December 6, 2007).

Other

More information was made possible through telephone interviews with Helen O. Dickens on August 2, 1993, and March 10, 1994, and with Karen Hamilton on March 10, 1994.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Dickens, Helen Octavia." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Dickens, Helen Octavia." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dickens-helen-octavia

"Dickens, Helen Octavia." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dickens-helen-octavia

Dickens, Helen Octavia 1909–

Helen Octavia Dickens 1909

Physician, surgeon, educator

At a Glance

Educational Pursuits

First Medical Practice

Medicine, Marriage, and Motherhood

Womens Illnesses and Teen Pregnancy Studied

Sources

Helen Octavia Dickens has devoted more than sixty years to addressing issues of health care through her medical practice, hospital administration positions, teaching assignments, advocacy of womens health needs, and counseling of medical students. A specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, Dickens was the first African American woman admitted as a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. In addition, she has long been recognized in the medical profession and education community for her research on the effects of intensive medical, psychological, educational, and social services intervention on pregnant, socially deprived teenagers, their families, and the fathers of the unborn children. Her concern has been with using these services to reduce the rate of teen pregnancies.

Helen Octavia Dickens was born in Dayton, Ohio, on February 21, 1909. The oldest of Charles and Daisy Jane Green Dickenss three children, she is their only surviving offspring. Dickens is the widow of Purvis Sinclair Henderson, who was a pediatric neurosurgeon, and the mother of Helen Jayne Henderson Brown and Norman Sinclair Henderson. Dickenss father, who had been a slave in Tennessee, was about nine years old when the Civil War ended. Given the discouraging and seemingly hopeless conditions of the time, he accepted the offer of a white family to relocate with them to Ohio. Dickens said in an interview on August 2, 1993, My father thought they were going to educate him. They had no idea of educating him. He, nevertheless, learned to read and write by asking people on the street what words meant. When he was twenty he decided it was time to move on.

For a time, Charles Dickens, who sought to improve himself academically and economically, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin College. Subsequently, he moved to Dayton, where he met Helen Dickenss mother, Daisy Jane Green. Her family, originally from Canada, had migrated to Paulding, Ohio, then to Dayton. Daisy Jane Dickens was a homemaker at the insistence of her husband, who did not want her to work. Ironically, it was Charles Dickens who encouraged his daughter to pursue medicine-a career that, were she to marry, would necessarily keep her out of the home. Unfortunately, when Dickens was eight years old, her father died from an infection he developed after a dental extraction.

Dickens received her elementary and high school educations in Dayton, remaining faithful to her fathers insistence that she attend integrated schools. Charles Dickens understood that a segregated education would put Dickens and her siblings at a disadvantage and would not prepare them for the challenges they would meet in the world at large. This was but a part of his larger philosophy of encouraging his children to keep their goals in mind at all times and to keep working to achieve them. This advice no doubt contributed to Dickenss determined spirit. For example, when she

At a Glance

Born February 21, 1909, in Dayton, OH; daughter of Charles (former slave) and Daisy (homemaker); married Purvis Henderson (deceased) 1943; children: Jayne H. Brown, Norman 5. Henderson; Education: Crane junior Col lege, premedical courses; University of Illinois, B.S., 1932, Univ. of IL College of Medicine, M.D., 1934; University of PA, Graduate School of Medicine, M.M.Sc, 1945.

Career: Mercy Douglass Hospital, dir, Dept of Ob/Gyn, 1948-67; Ob/Gyn Medical College of PA, assoc clinical prof., 1954-65; Womens Hospital, Dept of Ob/Gyn, chief of service, 1956-64; Univ. of PA, School of Medicine, dir of teen clinic, 1969-85; prof, emeritus, assoc dean, currently.

Selected awards: American Medical Womens Assn.; Board of Auxiliaries, Mercy Douglass Hospital; American Cancer Society; Univ. of IL Alumni Assn; Honorary Doctorates: Medical College of PA, Univ. of PA.

Selected memberships: American College of Surgeons; The American College of Ob/Gyn; American Medical Assn.; American Cancer Society.

Addresses: Office Professor Emeritus, Ob/Gyn,/Assoc. Dean, University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine, 3400 Spruce St, Philadelphia, PA 19104.

entered high school she realized that she would be eighteen years old when she graduated. She stated in the August 2, 1993, interview: I didnt want to graduate at eighteen, I wanted to do so at seventeen which was the average high school age to graduate. I had to figure out how to graduate at seventeen. By going to night school and summer school I did in fact graduate in three years and at the age of seventeen.

Dickens had decided to pursue a medical career when she was approximately twelve years old. Her family was very supportive of her decision, and she was also encouraged in that direction by her family dentist and by Blanche Arnold, a secretary at the local YWCA. She continued in the interview: Blanche had been to Africa and had thought of becoming a missionary. She saw that the missionaries sponsored by the YWCA who were physicians were the most helpful. I had no particular interest in being a missionary. But Blanche talked about physicians and I came to realize that was my interest, and that prospect my inspiration.

Educational Pursuits

After high school Dickens was accepted at Crane Junior College in Chicago, where she enrolled in premedical courses. She explained in the interview, Crane was a city college and thankfully I didnt have to pay tuition. At the time, people didnt make much money. My mother made only twenty-four doü ars a week. Academic admission standards at Crane were very competitive but fortunately Dickenss grades qualified her. Crane also required that students be Chicago residents. She managed to meet that requirement by living with her maternal aunt, Pearl Williams. Though her financial burden was eased because she didnt have to pay tuition, Dickens worked occasionally at the local A & P grocery. While at Crane, Dickens kept diligently focused on her studies and pointedly ignored the racism of the student body and faculty. She continued in the interview: I sat in the front seat. If other students wanted a good seat they had to sit beside me. If they didnt, it was not my concern because I could clearly see the professor and the blackboard as I was right up there. This way I didnt have to look at them or the gestures made that were directed against me or toward me.

Dickens went on to receive her bachelor of science degree in 1932 from the University of Illinois. In that year she entered the University of Illinois College of Medicine, where she was one of five women in a class of 137 medical students. In 1934 Dickens received her medical degree and was one of two women to graduate in her class.

Dickens did her internship and a residency in obstetrics at Provident Hospital in Chicago from 1933 to 1935. She recalled that women interns or residents could not live in the medical quarters but had to share the nurses quarters. Dickens gave a brief description of these years in the interview: There were no demonstrations. If you wanted the job, you just took it as is. This was true for black women and white women. Provident was a black hospital located on the South side of Chicago. There was tremendous poverty and tuberculosis. The medical residents did not go out into the community much. We actually did more community medicine while in medical school. Even then the faculty went with you as a part of the training. We were very anxious to go into the community.

First Medical Practice

Shortly before completing her residency, Dickens saw a notice about a position in Philadelphia with Virginia Alexander, a Quaker who was practicing medicine alone. Dickens was impressed with Alexanders home practice because it provided an alternative to the usual home or hospital obstetrics care. It was there, on Jefferson Street, in a three-story row house called the Asparanto Health Home, that Dickens began her practice. She said in the interview: When I started to practice I delivered babies at home. Sometimes there were difficulties delivering babies in the patients homes. To assist with these problems, Dr. Alexander provided four beds at Asparanto. It was arranged similar to a hospital with a small room the size of a bathroom which was used as the delivery room. On a night when we went to deliver a woman at home, we found that there was no electricity. We pushed the bed to the window and used the street light.

After about a year, Dickens was left to carry on the practice alone since Alexander had decided to go to Howard University Medical College for a year. In addition to taking over the medical practice, Dickens assumed the care of Alexanders aged father. Fortunately, they both lived at the Asparanto home and he could care for himself with the help of a housekeeper and a nurse provided by Alexander.

For approximately six years, Dickens was a general practitioner and provided obstetrical care with the support of only one nurse. She was persuaded that she particularly needed to know more about the obstetrical care that she was giving. She learned that the University of Pennsylvania graduate school of medicine offered a masters degree in medical science, and she thought this degree would help her secure a residency in obstetrics and gynecology. In 1941 Dickens enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine to study for a masters in medical science with a specialization in obstetrics and gynecology. I went there for the year and did get a residency, she said in the interview. Well, I didnt get the one I wanted at first. I went back to Provident, in Chicago, for a year.

Medicine, Marriage, and Motherhood

In 1942, when Dickens returned to Provident Hospital, she met Purvis Sinclair Henderson, a resident in general surgery whose father had practiced medicine in Boston. In 1943, while both were still residents, they married. That same year, Dickens was accepted for a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Harlem Hospital in New York City. This was a residency that she avidly sought after hearing Peter Marshall Murray, a noted internist and surgeon, give a presentation at Provident Hospital.

At the same time, Henderson had to consider returning to his practice in Savannah, Georgia. They agreed to support each others careers and visit between Georgia and New York until their responsibilities were completed.

Dickens finished her residency at Harlem Hospital in 1946 and in that same year was certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1948 Dickens was appointed director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mercy Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia. It was one of the few hospitals in Philadelphia having both a racially integrated staff and patient population. Sexism was a persistent problem for women physicians at Mercy Douglass. Shortly after her appointment, Henderson joined her in Pennsylvania. He took a residency in neurology at the University of Pittsburgh and subsequently was a resident in neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania Medical College.

Dickens and her husband raised two children. Their daughter, Helen Jayne Brown, is an internist who practices in Philadelphia. Norman Sinclair Henderson works in the field of communications in the Washington, D.C., area. Purvis Henderson died in 1961 before he was able to witness his childrens accomplishments.

In 1950, two years after her appointment to Mercy Douglass, Dickens became the first African American woman to be admitted as a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. For this singular achievement, she was honored by the governor as a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania. In 1953 she became a fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and was later admitted as a fellow of the International College of Surgeons. Dickens served as director of obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy Douglass until 1967. She was also a member of the courtesy staff of the Womens Hospital in Philadelphia from 1951 to 1952 and an associate in that hospitals Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology until 1956. That year, she became chief of the department, serving until 1964 when the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine acquired the Womens Hospital.

In 1965, Dickens began a long-standing relationship with the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and was appointed as an instructor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1966 she became an associate in the department. During the next ten years she was appointed assistant professor and then associate professor. Dickens was named professor of obstetrics and gynecology in 1976 and professor emeritus in 1985. Dickens was appointed associate dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1969, a position she presently holds. From 1969 to 1985 she was director of the School of Medicines Teen Clinic in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Dickens has also held faculty appointments at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. Between 1954 and 1957 she held the positions of clinical associate and assistant clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. In 1958 she was appointed associate clinical professor in the colleges Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and served in that position until 1965.

Womens Illnesses and Teen Pregnancy Studied

Dickenss specialization led her to pursue research in the area of womens illnesses. In particular, her studies have been concerned with the prevention of vaginal cancer. Dickens has also been seriously concerned about the treatment of pregnant teenagers in obstetrics and gynecology clinics. In 1970, while director of the Teen Clinic, Dickens initiated a comparative study of pregnant teenagers prenatal and postnatal behaviors in the prenatal clinic and teenage obstetrical clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. She sought to determine whether more intensive therapeutic intervention would improve these behaviors.

The study strongly suggested the importance of educational intervention with nonpregnant teens, most especially by their families, the schools, and the community at large. In 1972, as a result of the study, funds from a private foundation were used to support a follow-up program in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dickens continues to examine the phenomenon of teen pregnancy and has published extensively on the subject. Her focus has been on prevention. This is of particular concern in light of the possible relationship between cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, and AIDS in women. I dont know if they are as aware of that relationship as they should be. I guess that will come along with more education and more time, Dickens said in the 1993 interview.

Dickenss articles on teen pregnancy and issues related to obstetrics, gynecology, and public health have appeared in Pan American Medical Womens Journal, American Practice and Diagnosis of Treatment, American Journal of OB/GYN, American Journal of Public Health, Journal of Marriage and Family Counseling, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, and Womens Wellness. She has also contributed chapters to several books concerning adolescent health problems, particularly as they relate to teenage pregnancy and prevention. Dickens has lectured extensively in her areas of expertise. She was a consultant for the video documentary Loving Parents, produced in 1978 by Herman J. Engle for Texture Films, Inc., and a member of the Senior Science Advisory Group of the Health Information Network for their publication The Facts about AIDS--A Special Guide for NEA Members.

Dickens has received numerous awards for her studies of uterine cancer, teaching and academic counseling, advocacy of womens health needs, and committee service. She has been presented with awards by the American Medical Womens Association, the Board of Auxiliaries of Mercy Douglass Hospital, the American Cancer Society, the University of Illinois Alumni Association, the National Association of Medical Minority Educators, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the National Council of Negro Women, the Girl Scouts of Greater Philadelphia, and the Frederick Douglass Society. In 1990, on their Founders Day, Dickens was inducted into the Women Pioneers Hall of Fame by the Southwest Belmont Branch YWCA of Philadelphia. In 1992 she was warmly honored by the University of Pennsylvania Minority Alumni, Faculty, Housestaff, and Students.

Among her many awards from the medical profession are an honorary doctor of medical science degree, which she received from the Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1979, and an honorary doctor of science degree, which the University of Pennsylvania awarded her in 1982. Dickens holds membership in numerous national societies, among them the American College of Surgeons, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Medical Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the American Cancer Society. Dickens is also a member of local societies, including the Philadelphia County Medical Society, the Obstetrical Society of Philadelphia, the Childrens Aid Society, and the American Foundation for Negro Affairs. In 1968 Dickens developed the Office of Minority Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine to provide academic counseling to minority students. In 1984, Karen Hamilton, the assistant dean of student affairs and the current director of minority affairs, began a particularly productive collaboration with Dickens. Their efforts have resulted in a 98.5 percent minority student retention rate.

Now in her sixtieth year of medical practice, including almost thirty years with the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Dickens focuses her energies on her office practice and on admissions counseling of minority applicants. Today, as in her youth, Dickens is focused on her goals. She works a full day, five days a week. Retirement is not in her immediate plans.

Dickens has been an inspiration and a positive role model for over sixty years. Today she continues to inspire young women, particularly those who have set their sights on medicine as a profession.

Sources

Books

Adolescent Gynecology. Edited by Alfred M. Bongio-vanni, Plenum Publishing Corporation, 1983.

Marital and Sexual Counseling in Medical Practice. Edited by D. W. Abse, E. M. Nash, and L. M. R. Lauden. Haggerstown, Md.: Harper Row, 1974.

Periodicals

American Journal of Public Health, September 1973, p. 9.

Center for the Study of Aging Newsletter, Fall 1987, pp. 1, 4, 6, 10.

Journal of the American Medical Womens Association, January 1963, pp. 81-88.

Journal of Marriage and Family Counseling, April 1975, pp. 175-81.

New Lady, June 4, 1971, pp. 29, 33-34.

OB/GYNNews, July 1, 1974.

Penn Medicine, Fall 1990, pp. 9-15.

Philadelphia Evening News Bulletin, January 14, 1971.

Other

Hamilton, Karen. Telephone interview with Juanita R. Howard, March 10, 1994.

--. Telephone interviews with Juanita R. Howard, August 2, 1993, March 10, 1994.

Juanita R. Howard

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Dickens, Helen Octavia 1909–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Dickens, Helen Octavia 1909–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dickens-helen-octavia-1909

"Dickens, Helen Octavia 1909–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dickens-helen-octavia-1909