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Helen O. Dickens: Women’s Health Pioneer with Philadelphia Connections

As we celebrate Black History month, JEVS Care at Home (JCAH) honors Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens. Dr. Dickens blazed a trail for other black women in medicine, and her work led to many advances in the healthcare of women, especially young mothers.

Helping Mothers in Philadelphia 

Dr. Dickens was born in 1909. Her mother was a domestic servant, and her father had been a slave. Dr. Dickens was an excellent student, and her desire to help improve the lives of others led her to enroll in medical school at the University of Illinois. She graduated in 1933, the only black woman in her class. She worked for a time in Chicago and developed a special interest in Obstetrics and Gynecology, the branch of medicine that is devoted to the care of pregnant women. In 1935, she moved to Philadelphia to work in a clinic that served one of the city’s low-income black communities.

Learning and Leading

Dr. Dickens wanted to continue her education, so she enrolled in a master’s degree program at The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) School of Medicine. After graduating, she took on leadership roles in the Obstetrics and Gynecology departments at two Philadelphia hospitals. In 1965, she began teaching at Penn. Dr. Dickens was dedicated, talented, and driven to change medicine for the better, and her career included several “firsts.” She was the first black woman to become a full professor at Penn and the first black female physician in Philadelphia who became board-certified in Obstetrics & Gynecology. She was also the first black woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons. That meant her fellow physicians viewed her as one of the leading doctors in the country.

Advocating for Women’s Health

Dr. Dicken called for the use of pap smears to detect cervical cancer. She wanted black women to have access to this test, and she personally visited churches in Philadelphia’s black community and performed the test for free. Dr. Dickens’s belief in the pap smear, which was new at the time, had a strong influence on other physicians. Pap smears are credited with saving millions of lives.

Eventually Dr. Dickens rose to an important position at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She founded a clinic where pregnant teenagers and young mothers could receive treatment and get advice about reproductive health. She also increased minority enrollment in the School of Medicine by over 2000% in a few years.

Legacy and Recognition 

Dr. Dickens passed away in 2001, but she left a remarkable legacy. Few physicians have had as much of an impact on improving the healthcare of young women, especially women of color. To honor her achievements, Penn named its women’s health clinic The Helen O. Dickens Center for Women’s Health. A portrait of Dr. Dickens hangs inside Stemmler Hall, Penn’s Medical Education building, inspiring future generations of physicians.

JCAH’s Commitment Today

Like Dr. Dickens, JCAH helps people get the care they need. In 2024, Home Care Pulse (HCP) honored JCAH as a Provider of Choice. This award reflects JCAH’s dedication to improving healthcare access and quality, just as Dr. Dickens did throughout her remarkable career.

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