Women’s History Month

All-Star #2: Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens

Women’s History Month

All-Star #2: Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens

A governor. The world’s first computer programmers. Lawyers, doctors, writers, artists and activists. Philadelphia’s history is full of incredible, history-making women whose stories, unfortunately, are often all but missing from the history books.

It shouldn’t take a dedicated month—Women’s History Month—to recognize the contributions of these heroines. But in honor of the occasion, we scoured history to find several badass Philly women to celebrate for our Women’s History Month All-Stars.

RELATED: A cadre of visionary women are behind Guild House Hotel—a newly opened boutique hotel that celebrates the history residing in our buildings by giving props to the early feminists who initially occupied the property.


Helen Octavia Dickens

Physician / Sexual Health Advocate

Helen Octavia Dickens

Physician / Sexual Health Advocate


Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens was encouraged by her parents—former slaves—from a young age to focus on her education. She gained admittance to the University of Illinois medical school, and was the only African-American student in her class.

After treating impoverished urban areas lacking medical care, Dr. Dickens gained a master of science degree from Penn, completed her residency, and was certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

It was in this city that she became the first African-American fellow at the American College of Surgeons. She served as a director of the Mercy Douglass Hospital Ob/Gyn Department and also taught at Penn—by 1985 she was named professor emeritus.

Aside from her remarkable achievements, Dr. Dickens was also groundbreaking in her advocacy for sexual health among young women, and led extensive research in teen pregnancy and sexual health issues. She was a medical icon—both in her breaking of racial barriers and women’s reproductive rights.


  • University of Illinois, 1932
  • University of Illinois School of Medicine, 1934
  • University of Pennsylvania, 1943


  • Dickens was the only Black woman in her graduating class at the University of Illinois School of Medicine
  • Became the first female African-American board-certified Ob/Gyn in Philadelphia in 1945
  • Founded the Teen Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania in order to help pregnant teenagers and young mothers in 1967
  • Served as associate dean of minority admissions at the University of Pennsylvania
  • As dean, she increased the number of minority medical students from two or three to sixty-four in her first 5 years

In 1971, Dickens became the first Black person to receive the Gimbel Philadelphia Award for her “outstanding service to humanity.”


Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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