23. Dr May Edward Chinn
May Chinn’s father, William Lafayette Chinn, was born into slavery and escaped at the age of eleven. Her mother, Lula Ann Evans, was born on the Chickahominy Indian Reservation near Norfolk, Virgina to a family that included people who were Native American, Black and white. Their daughter would become a medical doctor and one of the foremost cancer specialists in New York City.
And she was kind of amazing.
After a childhood in which her mother (who worked as a housekeeper to some very well-off white people) made huge sacrifices to obtain a good education for her, Chinn first trained as a musician: she started at Columbia University Teachers’ College in 1917 as a music major. She began to play the piano as a professional accompanist before graduating, and even accompanied the amazing opera singer Paul Robeson (go read about him too, he’s worth it!) on more than one occasion. However, one of her professors persuaded her to change her major to science — for somewhat disturbing reasons: in her unpublished autobiography (now held in the New York Public Library), Chinn wrote that she was told that ”because I was of African descent… unless I could afford to go to Europe for final ‘polishing’ in my music, I would probably end up singing in a cabaret in America. If I chose science, my chances were better for a good future.” On that note, it’s difficult to know whether to talk about Chinn as Black or Black/Native American/white — given that in the quotation above she seems to have identified as Black and been treated as a Black woman by the world around her, that’s what I’ve gone with here for brevity’s sake, but I think that both sides of her ancestry need recognition.
Chinn applied to Bellevue Medical School, and was admitted. She gained her MD in 1926, and became the first Black woman to intern at Harlem Hospital (now Harlem Hospital Center). However, after finishing her internship in 1928 she was unable to get admitting privileges (ie. a job) at the hospital at which she’d interned. This certainly wasn’t because she hadn’t done a good job: she was an excellent medical practitioner, and the prestigious Rockefeller Institution offered her a research fellowship — then withdrew it when they discovered that their assumption that she was Chinese was incorrect (James, p.119). Horrible, but true.
Through interviews conducted while she was alive and through the above-mentioned autobiography, we’re lucky enough to have quite a lot of Chinn’s own words about her progress through medical school and work as a doctor. Here’s some of what she says:
We doctors in Harlem had many problems… Chief among them was that Negro doctors were denied any hospital connection whatever. There was not a City Hospital in New York City where we could attend an Out-patient Clinic or a Ward Service for [the] study and observation of the newer diseases and the effects of the newer drugs… Even if a hospital was around the ‘bend of the road’ it was useless to us who were denied any privilege whatsoever of its faculties. We managed the best we could.
In 1928, Chinn joined a collective of other Black doctors who worked together out of the Edgecombe Sanitarium, which functioned as an alternative to the largely-segregated New York hospital system (Warren, p.27). Later (much later - around 1940) she was finally given admitting privileges at Harlem Hospital, where she worked at the Strang Clinic. As her practice grew, she became more and more interested in cancer, and its diagnosis and treatment. In 1933 she embarked on a Masters at Columbia, where she worked closely with Dr Georgios Papanikolaou, inventor of the Pap smear — when he later moved to Cornell, she continued to work with him, and there’s some evidence that her research helped with his discoveries. Chinn continued to work on methods of early-detection for cancer, and in 1957 received an honourable citation from the American Cancer Society for her work.
Throughout her entire life, Chinn was also deeply devoted to helping others. She was active in the campaign for women’s votes and marched in at least one suffrage parade in 1919 (see image here), and her work at the Edgecombe Sanitarium was strongly oriented towards helping the Harlem community. In 1975, she helped to found the Susan Smith McKinney Steward Medical Society, an organisation to help Black women in medical school and document the achievements of Black female doctors. She also worked with the Phelps-Stokes Fund, an educational foundation designed to help students from Africa and other parts of the world to study medicine in the United States.
Chinn didn’t retire from medical practice until she was eighty-one years old. In December 1980, she collapsed and died at the age of eighty-four — at a reception at Columbia which had been organised to honour her. I hope that by then she knew exactly how much she’d done to make the world a better place.
Biography at the National Library of Medicine: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_61.html
Biography from the San Diego ‘Women in Science’ series: http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/chinn.html
Wikipedia bio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Edward_Chinn
Google Books link: Wini Warren, Black Women Scientists in the United States : http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=75bnncOVqEIC&lpg=PA28&ots=xKGbC9K7rT&dq=may%20edward%20chinn&pg=PA26#v=onepage&q=may%20edward%20chinn&f=false
Google Books link: Edward James et al, Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WSaMu4F06AQC&lpg=PA119&dq=may%20edward%20chinn%20notable%20american%20women&pg=PA119#v=onepage&q=may%20edward%20chinn%20notable%20american%20women&f=false