IDEA2 Resident DEIA

DEIA Committee Black History Month 101 – Week 4

We are celebrating week 4 of Black History Month by sharing the story of two historic figures – Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler and Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens, who were trailblazers for women of color in medicine as the “first” of many. 

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler 

In 1864, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman to earn an MD degree in the United States when she was the first and only black woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College. She practiced in Boston and moved to Richmond, Virginia after the Civil War, caring for freed slaves who would have had no access to medical care. In 1883, she published the Book of Medical Discourses – medical advice for women and children –  one of the first medical publications from a Black author. 

Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens 

Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens was the first Black woman to:

  • Graduate from University of Illinois Medical School 
  • Become a board certified in OBGYN in Philadelphia
  • Be named a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and AOCG.
  • Become a professor in the ObGyn Department at Penn
  • Dean of Minority Admissions, increasing minority enrollment from 3 students to 64 in 5 years  

Dr. Dickens founded the Teen Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania for young mothers in the inner city, providing preventative and holistic care. She would go beyond just addressing their health concerns by ensuring that they had the support they needed to return to complete their education. 

Dickens was dedicated to combating the health inequities resulting in the disproportionate rates of cervical cancer in Black women. As the director of OB/GYN at Philadelphia’s segregated Mercy Douglass Hospital, she pioneered cervical cancer screening programs and trained over 200 Black physicians on how to perform Pap Smears. A testament to her devotion, Dr. Dickens would even drive an American Cancer Society van and perform free exams for Black women. Dr. Dickens was a true champion of women’s healthcare and received awards for her work from the American Medical Women’s Association, the American Cancer Society, the National Association of Medical Minority Educators, and the Frederick Douglass Society. She continued to practice medicine until well into her 80s. In 1999, Penn renamed their Teen Clinic to the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women’s health in honor of the 50 years she spent “healing, helping and guiding women of all ages.”

Today, less than 3% of practicing physicians identify as African American women. Read or listen to why we need more black female doctors.

Watch ACOG’s Inaugural Betsey, Lucy, and Anarcha Memorial Lecture on demand

STL Spotlight:

We hope this series celebrating Black History Month was informative and engaging. We hope you continue to read, learn, and engage in antiracism throughout the rest of the year. 

Best wishes,

DEIA committee (Christina, Mitra, Halley, Jinai, Bridget, Caroline, and Tamara)