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In memoriam: Helen Hislop, 84

Helen Hislop, far right, and colleagues begin motion exercises with a polio patient following a spinal fusion. (Photo/courtesy of Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Medical Center)

Helen Hislop, a former chair of the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, died on Nov. 15 in North Carolina. She was 84.

During her 30-year tenure at USC, Hislop engineered the growth of the program’s size and prestige.

In a message to colleagues, Associate Dean James Gordon, current chair of the division, acknowledged that Hislop, who was chair of the division from 1975 to 1998, changed academic physical therapy at USC and beyond.

“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,” Gordon wrote. “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, Hislop developed the first PhD 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 United States. Another innovation was the creation of clinical specializations within the division curriculum. She also developed the clinical internship programs which turned into physical therapy residencies while she was at USC.

In the 1950s, Hislop studied physical therapy at the University of Iowa, where she worked with polio patients. She went on to Yale University Hospital and later finished a master’s degree in physiology at the University of Iowa. After teaching for several years, she completed her PhD in physiology in Iowa.

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, 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, a position she held for much of the 1960s, which gave her a voice in shaping the direction of the profession.

Helen Hislop in 2011 (Photo/courtesy of American Physical Therapy Association)

Helen Hislop in 2011 (Photo/courtesy of American Physical Therapy Association)

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.

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 doctorates in physical therapy. Instead, most of the top professionals in physical therapy, including herself, earned a PhD in other scientific fields.

“We would never get the research we wanted if we only hired PhDs in something else,” Hislop said.

Hislop started applying for grants to help USC’s physical therapy program hire more faculty members and provide them with funds to conduct research and to develop training programs for the students.

She redesigned clinical education for division students, establishing 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 PhD students and awarded its first doctorate in 1984. In 1993, 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 Hislop retired and moved to Durham, N.C.

Of her time at USC, 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.”


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In memoriam: Helen Hislop, 84

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