Dr. Helen Hislop, Influential Former Chair, dies at 84


Dr. Helen Hislop, a pioneering former chair of the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, died on November 15 in North Carolina at the age of 84. Dr. Hislop spent 23 years at USC, and during her tenure she engineered the growth of the program’s size as well as its prestige.

Dr. James Gordon, in a message to his colleagues at USC, acknowledged that Dr. Hislop, who was chair of the Division from 1975 to 1998, 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,” wrote Dr. Gordon, the current chair of the Division. “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.”

While at the helm of the Division, Dr. Hislop developed the first Ph.D. program in physical therapy in the United States and one of the first Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs.

She also embraced evidence-based learning, integrating the practice of physical therapy with top-level scientific research, which has since become the standard at the Division and for all physical therapy programs in the U.S.

Another of her innovations was the creation of clinical specializations within the Division curriculum. She also developed the clinical internship programs which transformed into physical therapy residencies while she was at USC.

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.

Dr. Hislop 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. She was later asked to edit the Journal of the APTA, a position she held for much of the 1960s, which gave her a voice in shaping the direction of the profession.

She came to USC in 1968, while working as director of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, which had an affiliation with several departments at USC, including physical therapy. At the time, the Division had only three faculty members and not all of them were full-time.

Dr. Hislop set about transforming the USC physical therapy program from the very beginning. She had come to believe that the profession suffered from the fact that no program then offered Ph.D.s in physical therapy. Instead, most of the top professionals in physical therapy, including herself, earned Ph.D.s in other scientific fields. “We would never get the research we wanted if we only hired Ph.D.s in something else,” said Dr. Hislop.

She also felt the practice of physical therapy would be elevated if students were better prepared in terms of their clinical experience. Dr. Hislop started applying for grants to help USC’s physical therapy program hire more faculty and provide them with funds to conduct research and to develop training programs for the students.

Dr. Hislop redesigned the clinical education for Division students, making a one-year internship for select students for the first time. During that year, students did three rotations at three local institutions, including Rancho Los Amigos and Los Angeles County Hospital, now called LAC+USC Medical Center.

By 1978, the program at USC accepted its first Ph.D. students and awarded its first Ph.D. in 1984. 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 the Division’s formal name.

It took another decade to plan, but she also successfully launched USC’s DPT program, which graduated its first class in 1998, the year Dr. Hislop retired and moved to Durham, N.C.

Of her time at USC, Dr. Hislop noted several years ago that the Division “is much better than it was when I left. And that’s exactly the way it should be.”

According to Dr. Gordon, Dr. Hislop recently broke a femur and was not able to overcome complications from this injury. A memorial service to celebrate Dr. Hislop's life and legacy will be held at USC on Jan. 11, 2014 in the Bovard Auditorium on the USC University Park campus. If you wish to attend, RSVP online by Jan. 3 and use the code "Hislop". For further information, please call (323) 442-2900.

Donations in Dr. Hislop's honor may be made online to the Helen Hislop Endowed Scholarship Fund, which supports USC Doctor of Physical Therapy students at USC.

An obituary published in The Downey Patriot can be read here.

In 2010, Dr. Hislop contributed an Oral History to USC that can be heard here.

A Video tribute can be seen here.