Dr. May Edward Chinn

An advocate for early cancer screenings


Dr. May Edward Chinn advocated for medical equity, including improving access to care for people of low-income backgrounds and advocating for early cancer screenings and interventions.

Her father, William Layfayette Chinn, was a former Virginia slave. Her mother, Lulu Evans, came from a Chickahominy Indian reservation near Norfolk. The two met and married in Great Barrington, where Chinn was born and raised for the first few years of her life.

Chinn's mother went on to work as a live-in housekeeper for the Tiffany family (of the jewelry company fame) and Chinn lived with her growing up in New York City. Despite dropping out of school in the 11th grade, Chinn became a talented pianist, accompanying singer Paul Robeson and earned a spot at Columbia Teachers College (now Teachers College, Columbia University). She intended to study music, but one music professor's racist remarks dissuaded her. With the encouragement of Dr. Jean Broadhurst, she pursued a career in the sciences.

Despite many adversities and objections to her advancement in the medical field, Chinn became the first African-American woman to graduate from Columbia and Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1926. That year, she carved her niche serving in Harlem, as the first African-American woman to hold an internship at Harlem Hospital and one of the first women to ride with the hospital's ambulance crew on emergency medical calls.

In the 1930s, she worked with Dr. George Papanicolaou, noted for his work on the Pap smear test for cervical cancer. She earned her master's degree in public health from Columbia University in 1933. In 1944, four years after black physicians were granted admitting privileges at New York hospitals, she joined the Strang Cancer Clinic at Memorial Hospital, taking a full-time position at the Strang Clinic at the New York Infirmary, the following year. She remained with the clinic, conducting cancer research, for 29 years. She practiced medicine for more than 50 years, running her own private practice in Harlem until her retirement at the age of 81.

— Jenn Smith, The Berkshire Eagle



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