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Fascinating Facts from the College: Helen Octavia Dickens Paved the Way for Surgeons Who Followed Her

In honor of Black History Month this past February, which celebrates the achievements of African Americans in U.S. history, we are highlighting the life of Helen Octavia Dickens, MD, FACS. Dr. Dickens was the first African-American female Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (ACS).

Helen Octavia Dickens, MD, FACS. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.Only two African-American men were admitted into the ACS prior to 1946: Daniel Hale Williams, MD, FACS, in 1913, and Louis T. Wright, MD, FACS, in 1934.1 However, in 1945, the College created a committee to decide what its position would be regarding admission of more African-American surgeons. After sending out a survey to Fellows asking their opinions on the matter, a large majority of Fellows replied that qualified African-American surgeons should be admitted into ACS Fellowship. As a result, the number of African-American male Fellows began increasing in 1946. But it was not until 1950 that the first African-American woman was admitted. During the 1950 Convocation ceremony at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA, Helen Octavia Dickens, MD, became the first female African-American Fellow of the College.2

Dr. Dickens was born in Dayton, OH, on February 21, 1909. After graduating from high school, she was accepted at Crane Junior College in Chicago, IL, and was later accepted at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago. She graduated in 1934 as the only African-American woman in a class of 137 students.

After graduating, Dr. Dickens performed her residency in obstetrics at Provident Hospital in Chicago, IL, from 1933 to 1935 and then joined Dr. Virginia Alexander in a birthing-home practice in Philadelphia, PA, for seven years. After additional training at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Medicine and another short time at Provident, Dr. Dickens was certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1945. She was the first African-American board-certified OB/GYN in Philadelphia, PA. That same year, she was appointed director of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia, PA. She joined the staff of Women’s Hospital—later taken over by the University of Pennsylvania—in 1951, where she was eventually named chief of obstetrics and gynecology.3

Dr. Dickens began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1965, starting as an instructor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology. Over the next 10 years she advanced through the ranks to be named a full professor in 1976 and professor emeritus in 1985.4 Early in her tenure, she also served as dean of the office for minority affairs at the University of Pennsylvania. In her first five years in that role, she greatly increased the enrollment numbers of minority medical students.

Dr. Dickens had several special interests throughout her historical career. In 1967, she founded the teen clinic at the University of Pennsylvania for school-age mothers in the inner city and went on to serve as director of the teen clinic and as an advocate for teen mothers throughout her career. She also initiated a project that brought temporary cancer detection facilities into Philadelphia’s inner city and implemented a project funded by the National Institutes of Health that encouraged doctors to perform Pap smears to test for cervical cancer in women.

Throughout her career, Dr. Dickens was a member of many professional societies, a board member for the American Cancer Society and Children’s Aid Society, among others, and a recipient of numerous awards. She was also the first African-American woman to be admitted into fellowship in the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.5 Dr. Dickens had a long and influential career, advocating for her patients and helping to pave the way for female African-American surgeons to follow. She was married to Dr. Purvis Henderson, also a surgeon, and had two children.6

Dr. Dickens died in December 2001, and her personal papers were donated to the University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center. For more information on Dr. Dickens and her accomplishments, visit their website.

Fellow certificate presented to Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens. Photo courtesy of the University Archives and Records Center, University of Pennsylvania.


  1. Minutes, Board of Regents, American College of Surgeons. November 13, 1913. Archives of The American College of Surgeons.
  2. Letter from Lydia W. Wright to Henry W. Cave, MD, FACS, January 29, 1951. Archives of The American College of Surgeons.
  3. “Helen Octavia Dickens papers, 1909-2001,” August 2011. Finding aid at the University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center. Available at Accessed January 5, 2017.
  4. National Library of Medicine. “Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens,” Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America’s Women Physicians, 2005. Available at Accessed January 5, 2017.
  5. Nahrwold DL, Kernahan PJ. A Century of Surgeons and Surgery: The American College of Surgeons 1913-2012. Chicago: The American College of Surgeons; 2012:129.
  6. “Helen Octavia Dickens papers, 1909-2001,” August 2011.