The Extraordinary Life and Work of May Edward Chinn (GSM 1926)

Photo of a large group of students posing in front of a school building

May Edward Chinn (circled) in a junior-year group portrait of the Bellevue Hospital Medical College Class of 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.

Photo of Chinn as a baby

May Edward Chinn as a baby, circa 1897. (Courtesy of the Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Photo of a Chinn as a young teen

May Edward Chinn circa 1917.

Photo of Chinn as a new graduate

Chinn’s Bellevue Hospital Medical College graduation portrait, circa 1926. (Courtesy of the “New York Times”)

Photo of a large hospital room with beds along opposite walls and a nurse's desk at the front.

Harlem Hospital, 1929, soon after the time of Chinn’s internship.

            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.

Quinn at her office desk

Chinn in her Edgecombe Avenue office, 1935. (Courtesy of George B. Davis, PhD)

Quinn, in white coat, examines a young boy sitting on an exam table

Chinn examining a young patient, 1930. (Courtesy of George B. Davis, PhD)

Photo of a line of women, in suffragette white dresses, march down a street

Chinn (second from right) marching in a suffrage parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, 1919. (Courtesy of George B. Davis, PhD)

Head shot of Chinn

An undated photo of Chinn. (Courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine)