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Dr. Helen Hislop, influential physical therapist, mourned
Former director of physical thereapy at Rancho hospital dies at 84.
WRITTEN BY :   Dr. Lucinda Baker and Greg Waskul

DOWNEY – Dr. Helen J. Hislop, PT, PhD, FAPTA, a visionary leader, educator and author whose pioneering work in physical therapy made her a legend at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center and USC and one of the most influential physical therapists in the world, died on Nov. 15 near her home in High Point, North Carolina. She was 84.

A memorial service to celebrate Dr. Hislop’s life and legacy will be conducted by the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy on Jan. 11, 2014 in the Bovard Auditorium on the USC University Park campus. If you wish to attend, RSVP online by Jan. 3 to usc.edu/dept/pubrel/specialevents/esvp/esvp_hislop.php and use the code “Hislop”. For further information, please call (323) 442-2900.

Dr. Hislop was a longtime resident of Downey who moved to North Carolina after retiring in 1998.
She was recuperating at Dr. Jacquelin Perry’s Downey home from a serious back problem in 1968 when Dr. Vernon Nickel, medical director of the then Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, asked her to become director of physical therapy at Rancho’s Rehabilitation Research and Training Center. She began working at Rancho from a stretcher.

The center was part of Rancho’s affiliation with several USC schools and departments, including Physical Therapy. Dr. Hislop quickly discovered that USC physical Therapy had only three faculty members. The PT program was located in an old house. “The first time I went in I thought I would die,” she said. “It was the division’s anatomy lab, and they had the bodies lying on the kitchen counters.”

The first students enrolling in Dr. Hislop’s one-year internship spent three months each at Rancho, Los Angeles County Hospital (now LAC+USC) and Orthopaedic Hospital for the princely sum of $1.10 per hour stipend. Dr. Hislop conducted three-hour seminars for her students on Friday afternoons where she said, “we talked about what PT could be,” she said, “and what they needed to do.”

In 1971, after Dr. Hislop was appointed a visiting professor at USC, Rancho provided rent-free space for the Physical Therapy school. Dr. Perry and other Rancho team members helped with the curriculum.

She also felt the practice of physical therapy would be elevated if students were better prepared in terms of their clinical experience. Dr. Hislop applied for and received many grants to help USC’s Physical Therapy program hire more faculty and provide them with funds to conduct research and develop training programs for the students. The first grant funds came from the Rancho Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, and many others followed over the years.

Some of the faculty recruits had earned their PhDs in physiology, anatomy or an allied field at another university. So Dr. Hislop created a PhD program in Physical Therapy at USC, the nation’s first such program. The program accepted its first students in 1978 and awarded the profession’s first PhD degree, to Mary Beth Brown, in 1984.

“It was a huge step,” Dr. Hislop said. “We would never get the research we wanted if we only hired people who had PhDs in something else, who did not get the whole gestalt of what it takes to do research that has a primary focus in Physical Therapy,” she said. “It was the skill and belonging and the desire that I was looking for.”

Eventually, Dr. Hislop developed the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, which graduated its first class in 1998.

In 1993, Dr. Hislop introduced the concept of Biokinesiology, which studies the interplay between molecular and cell biology of muscles, bones and joints and how that influences the mechanical and behavioral aspects of movement. Biokinesiology was integrated into the Division’s curriculum during that time and also became part of its formal name.
In her 23 years as chair of PT at USC, Dr. Hislop engineered both the growth of the PT program’s size as well as its prestige.

Dr. James Gordon, chair of USC’s Division of Biokinesiolgy and Physical Therapy, acknowledged that Dr. Hislop, changed not only USC’s program, but academic physical therapy everywhere.

“More than anyone, she was responsible for the growth of our research programs, the formation of our clinical programs, and the excellence of our education programs,” Dr. Gordon stated. “She was a true visionary, and she is recognized as a giant in the Physical Therapy profession. Every physical therapist, not just those of us at USC, benefits from her legacy.”

In addition to her pioneering efforts in providing doctoral degrees in Physical Therapy, she also embraced evidence-based learning, integrating the practice of physical therapy with top-level scientific research, which has since become the standard for all Physical Therapy programs in the U.S.

Another of her innovations was the creation of clinical specializations within the Division’s curriculum. She also developed the clinical internship programs which transformed into Physical Therapy residencies.

Dr. Hislop studied Physical Therapy at the University of Iowa in the early 1950s, where she first worked with polio patients. She went on to work at Yale University Hospital and later finished a master’s degree in physiology at the University of Iowa. After teaching for several years, Dr. Hislop completed her Ph.D. in physiology at the University of Iowa.

She conducted research early in her career on the state of Physical Therapy education that would be the foundation of the reforms she later instituted at USC. That study, published in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), looked at the level of physical therapists’ preparation in the sciences and clinical work and the types of positions they held.

With contributions in virtually every facet of the profession, Dr. Hislop played a key role in shaping the future of the field. She was a widely read author of journal articles and textbooks, including Daniels and Worthingham’s Muscle Testing, Techniques of Manual Examination and Performance Testing (co-author). Dr. Hislop contributed to APTA in many capacities, serving as editor of Physical Therapy from 1961 to 1968, on the Board of Directors from 1976 to 1982, and playing a leading role in the development of the post-professional education program.

Her skills as a critical thinker and writer were recognized in 1991 when APTA established the Helen J. Hislop Award for Outstanding Contributions to Professional Literature. Dr. Hislop was the recipient of many major honors during her lifetime, including the Golden Pen Award, the Lucy Blair Service Award, and inclusion as a McMillan lecturer. She was named a Catherine Worthingham Fellow in 1983.

Her leadership at Rancho and USC has had a similarly huge impact on the continuing PT excellence of both institutions. Today Rancho’s physical therapists are considered the finest in the world. And the USC Physical Therapy is perennially ranked No. 1 among all physical therapy programs in the United States by U.S. News and World Report.

Donations in Dr. Hislop’s honor may be made to USC’s Helen Hislop Endowed Scholarship Fund, which supports USC Doctor of Physical Therapy students. at the USC giving page at https://giveto.usc.edu/?fundid=27&appealcode-WDENT0002&buttongen-1.

“Although we have lost Dr. Hislop, she will live on forever in the many generations of physical therapists around the world who have been inspired by her greatness, and the physical therapists of the future whose practice will be rooted in what she taught us,” Dr. Gordon said.

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Published: Dec. 19, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 36



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