Diaspora Dialogues sheds light on pioneering female physician

A modest crowd of students and faculty members gathered in the lecture room of the Meek-Eaton Black Archives on March 9 at noon to attend this month’s Diaspora Dialogues hosted by Kwasi Densu, Ph.D., an assistant professor of political science at Florida A&M University.

"Within this context that we have, Diaspora Dialogues, we come together as faculty, staff and community to discuss issues related to people of African descent around the world,” said Densu.

Diaspora Dialogues is a monthly event welcoming  students,  staff and the public  to a discussion forum  focusing on the issues of culture, race and identity among people of African ancestry in diverse areas of the world.

Ameenah Shakir, Ph.D.,an assistant professor of history at FAMU , was the  featured speaker of the event. She discussed  Helen Dickens Ph.D., and her efforts to produce cancer prevention among African-American women.

“A lot of times when you think about activists, you think about people who are carrying out marches. She did not lead any major marches, yet she chose to be an activist with her profession,” said Shakir.

Dickens is from Dayton, Ohio and serves as one of the major crusaders and pioneers for the advancement of medical citizenship in the United States. She was the first African-American women to be  inducted into the American College of Surgeons in 1950.

Years later she became the first African-American faculty member at the medical school at  University of Pennsylvania. There she was  an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and associate dean of minority affairs at the university.

Although Dickens had a private practice of her own and founded a teen clinic for teenage mothers at University of Pennsylvania, she is acknowledged for being an advocate for cancer research and her quest to prevent the disease in African-American women as well.

Dickens used print media and her credentials to set the stage for her cancer prevention efforts. Also, she engaged in community institutions through print media.

“She compiled demographic and statistical information of black women that were affected with cancer,” said Shakir. She began to make black women health care needs visible through medical education.”

Shakir talked about Dickens seeking national funding to support her cancer project. In 1962, her research findings were presented at the National Medical Associations Annual Conference in Chicago.

After years of research for cancer prevention, Dickens was awarded funding by the National Institution of Health in 1965.    

According to Shakir, there is  a narrative that black women did not become doctors until the 1960s or 1970s.

“One of the things we're trying to do here is disprove this myth by talking about black women,” said Shakir.    

Faith Platts, a first-year social work student from Jacksonville, Fla., said that it’s always good to hear about someone who was brave enough to make the moves to help others.

“It was interesting what she did for a lot of other women and it was a good thing. It was good information being told to me,” said Platts.

"One of the things I hope that, now you understand after this talk today, is the ways in which African-American women worked to serve as activists within the African-American community,” said Shakir, “Specifically, the ways in which they centralized health care and some of the ways in which they are a continuity between this woman, Helen Dickens, in the 1930s and some of the modern expressions that you see in cancer prevention.”

The next Diaspora Dialogues will be held on April 16, in the lecture room of the Black Archives.