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Helen Davies: An Infectious Passion for Teaching, 50 years and Counting

August 25, 2018

Every Friday morning, Helen C. Davies, a 93-year-old Professor of Microbiology at University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, sets off punctually at 7:45 a.m. to the infectious disease management meeting at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Helen, who insists people call her by first name, can’t remember how long she has been attending these meetings.

 

“For a mighty long time,” according to her. But what she can remember is that she used to be able to walk freely to these meetings -then with a cane. Now, she wheels.

 

“How are you today, Helen?” greets a senior physician in the elevator concourse.

 

“I’m good, dear,” she replies, while another physician exits the elevator to make space for her and her wheelchair.

 

In a meeting room full of white-coated physicians who pride themselves on their career—saving lives, those who have been Helen’s own students are in awe of Helen and her own career—a lifelong educator.

 

Helen has taught over 10,000 medical students for more than half a century. She has won the annual Excellent in Teaching Award 16 times. And her portrait, which can be found in Johnson Pavilion, was done by Nelson Shanks—whose other commissions include Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, President Bill Clinton, and Princess Diana.

 

Despite her innumerable contributions to the university, Helen has never stopped perfecting her teaching. Her infectious disease class, where she sings to students, has helped generations of medical students learn about pathogens in a witty way.

 

Out of a book of microbe song sheets she has composed, “Leprosy” is her all-time favorite. It was written to the tune of Beatles’ “Yesterday”:

 

Leprosy,

Bits and pieces falling off of me

But it isn’t the toxicity

It’s just neglect of injury

Suddenly,

I’m not half the man I used to be

Can’t feel anything peripherally

From swollen nerves, hypersensitivity

Why don’t lerpae grow in vitro we cannot say

In vivo they grow very slow, once in 12 days

Hard to get,

But the stigma hasn’t faded yet

Don’t keep an armadillo as a pet,

Don’t forget…

 

The daughter of a Rabbi, Helen was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1925. After growing up in the Great Depression, Helen went to Brooklyn College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry during World War II. She graduated college when she was 19, as the only female in her class.

 

“I never had trouble finding dates back in college, since I was the only girl,” Helen quipped.

 

Helen received her master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Rochester in 1950, followed by her doctorate in physical biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1960.

 

She has stayed at Penn since then.

 

Her husband, Robert E. Davies, a biochemist and a Benjamin Franklin Professor and University Professor at Penn’s veterinarian school, died in 1993 while mountain climbing in Scotland.

 

Soon after her husband’s death, Helen moved into the Quad, living with hundreds of freshmen.

 

“I just love the students so much, I want to be part of them,” Helen says.

 

Helen is the eldest and the first woman faculty master, the highest administrator on site, for Ware College House. She leads both the Women in Science and Infectious Disease programs.

 

Her apartment, on the second floor of Ware College House, has two bedrooms and a big living room that Helen adores since “it can host as many students as possible when they come visit me.”

 

Like most students in the building, Helen also has a roommate—Emilie Anderson, who graduated from Penn in 2005.

 

Before her graduation, Emilie came to Helen for advice—she was offered an incredible job opportunity…but it didn’t pay well. Should she keep looking for other jobs, or take this precious opportunity?

 

“Helen told me, ‘Sweetheart, if this job is what you love to do, you should take it! Don’t worry about the money. I have a spare bedroom in my apartment, and you can crash with me if that can you relieve your financial burden,’” Emilie said.

 

“And I never moved out—it’s been 15 years.”

 

Like Emilie, many others, especially women and other minorities in the Penn community and beyond, have also been infected by Helen’s love.

 

Robert Ross, one of the few black pre-med students on campus in the 1960s, persisted in medicine because of Helen’s constant attention and encouragement. More than two decades later, Dr. Ross has served as the Philadelphia Health Commissioner and is now the CEO and President of the California Endowment, a major health foundation in California.

 

During the 1970s, Helen taught a 20-week biology course to 20 African American gang leaders as part of Urban Leadership Training Program, hoping to bring more opportunities to underrepresented communities.

 

“To talk about Helen without mentioning her contribution to the women and minority communities is just diminishing,” said Susan Weiss, who is also a Professor of Microbiology.

 

“I mean think about it—she marched with Martin Luther King at Selma, during the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.”

 

Before Dr. Weiss’s arrival in the 1980s, Helen had been the only female faculty member in the Microbiology Department since its establishment in the 1970s.

 

Helen not only infects people with her passion for her career but also with her love of life.

 

Just two years ago, at age 91, in her wheelchair, Helen went on a trip with Emilie traversing eight countries, from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, in 20 days.

 

“Apparently, not only people who know Helen love her, the entire world loves her,” Emilie laughed. “When we were in Burma, I was taking pictures… and I turned around, saw a group of Buddhist monks carrying Helen and her wheelchair all the way up to the top of the monument. And what’s amazing was that they were communicating in languages that neither of them could understand.”

 

“And when we were in the Israel, Helen started chatting with this young, handsome museum guard in Hebrew. And the guard opened the museum just for Helen even though it was closed that day,” Emilie continued laughing.

 

Only until recent years did Helen start to ease her workload—meaning not leaving for work at 6:00 a.m. and returning home at 11:00 p.m. She now spends most of her day reading in her apartment—sometimes a book a day or sometimes an entire weekly Science Magazine subscription—with the company of “Alexa”, who turns on the lights and plays music for her.

 

During the weekends, Helen and Emilie Uber to restaurants for lunch, followed by a movie at AMC, just like many students on campus. Or they shop for clothes at thrift stores. They often host parties in their apartment, such as the midnight pancake party, which makes sure “these students would have something in their stomach before getting drunk.”

 

When asked when she would retire, Helen smiled, “Never.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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