The Extraordinary Life and Work of May Edward Chinn (GSM 1926)
Her father and her mother’s father were both enslaved. So the story of May Edward Chinn (1896–1980) is a remarkable one. And while she lived in a post–Emancipation Proclamation United States, she encountered racism—and misogyny—at every turn. Fortunately, she possessed a tenacity which, coupled with brilliance and empathy, Chinn would harness to better and even save untold thousands of lives.
“Quixotic” best describes her goal of becoming a physician: according to the 1920 census, only 65 Black women in the country were doctors. Still, in 1926 Chinn became the first Black woman to graduate from what was then the Bellevue Hospital Medical College (now the Grossman School of Medicine). She then became the first Black woman to intern at the primarily White-staffed Harlem Hospital and the first woman of any race to respond to emergency calls with ambulance crews.
A residency was impossible; hospitals denied Black doctors admitting privileges. So in 1928, Chinn opened a private practice. Her attention eventually turned to cancer, which she deemed “a fanatic preoccupation.” In 1944 she joined the Strang Clinic, known for its cutting-edge cancer research. There she developed techniques for early detection including consideration of personal and family medical histories. George Davis, who wrote “A Healing Hand in Harlem” about Chinn for the New York Times in 1979, noted, “It is almost as if the [cancer] became the target of all the frustration and anger Dr. Chinn felt at the racial and sexual discrimination she encountered in her own life and in those of her patients.”
At the June 1980 commencement ceremony, NYU bestowed upon Chinn an honorary doctorate of science. She passed away that December, but her stellar accomplishments and true-grit perseverance inspire to this very day.