Helene Thomas Bennett arrived in Yuma in 1926 with an MA in bacteriology to start a medical laboratory. She soon discovered that the Yuma City Council refused to provide her lab equipment because of a quarrel they had with the Yuma City Health Officer. Undaunted, Helene borrowed $200 from her mother and with donated equipment from some local doctors she opened the Yuma Clinical Laboratory, later known as Thomas Laboratories. It eventually became the second largest institution of its kind in Arizona.
Born July 5, 1901 in Raton, New Mexico, Helene was the eldest of John and Katherine (Wendel) Thomas’s three children. She was only six years old when her father was killed in a railroad accident and shortly after this, moved with her family to the mid-west. She graduated from the University of Kansas in 1922 with a degree in chemistry and two years later earned a Master’s degree in Bacteriology—an uncommon profession for a young woman at that time.
As an early businesswoman in an unusual profession, Helene needed more than laboratory skills as she worked to overcome antagonism toward the health measures she fought to implement in Yuma. For example, she was appalled at the high levels of bacteria in the milk produced in a local dairy. The dairy owner put pressure on the newspaper to stop publishing the results of her tests, so she posted them on her laboratory window where everyone could see them. Her reports triggered public pressure which resulted in an inspection of the businessman’s dairy by the State Dairy Commissioner. She was responsible for passage of the first Yuma milk ordinance to prevent the marketing of unclean milk.
Yuma took its water supply from the Colorado River, at that time polluted with sewage from campers and other cities. She persuaded the city to test and chlorinate its water, thereby eliminating annual bouts of typhoid fever and dysentery. She demonstrated that a woman could be successful and could influence local and regional health care.
In 1926 Helen married Ray C. Bennett, an attorney. They were the parents of three children, a daughter and two sons. She was widowed in 1944 and Helene took on the dual roles of mother and breadwinner. Throughout her long career she fought to improve community health conditions and standards in Yuma and the surrounding area. As a founding member of the Arizona Public Health Association, an advocacy organization that educates the public and the legislature on health issues, she expanded her work to improve health conditions across the state.
Always interested in children and youth, Helene ran for the Yuma School Board in 1953. Her campaign slogan was “One half the students are girls—we need a woman on the Board.” The first woman elected to the Board, she served for the next 25 years. She became a captain in the Civil Air Patrol and was the second woman in Yuma to earn a pilot’s license. She founded the Yuma Soroptimist Club in 1957, serving in local, regional and international positions and remained active until her death in 1988.
See below for a list of women who were inducted for their scientific achievements.