In 1926 May Edward Chinn became the first African American woman to graduate from the University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College. She practiced medicine in Harlem for fifty years. A tireless advocate for poor patients with advanced, often previously untreated diseases, she became a staunch supporter of new methods to detect cancer in its earliest stages.
Chinn was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1896, and grew up in New York City. Her father, William Lafayette Chinn, was a former Virginia slave from the Cheyne (Chinn) plantation, and her mother, Lulu Ann Evans, a Native American from the Chickahominy Indian reservation near Norfolk, Virginia.
Chinn was sent to boarding school at age five or six, but became ill with osteomyelitis of the jaw (an infectious inflammatory disease of bone) and went to stay with her mother, who was in domestic service for a wealthy family. Through them she received a good secondary education, music lessons, and cultural experiences with the family's children. She entered the Columbia University Teacher's College in 1917, planning to major in music. For several years, she was piano accompanist to singer Paul Robeson and she retained a love of music her whole life.
A paper she wrote for a hygiene course during her first year in college impressed her instructor, Dr. Jean Broadhurst, who encouraged her to consider a major in science. In her autobiography, Chinn says, faculty told her "because I was of African descent, that 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."
In the mid 1920s, African American physicians were not granted admitting privileges or special residencies at any hospitals, so after graduating from Bellevue Hospital Medical College and completing an internship at Harlem Hospital in 1928, Chinn opened a private practice on Edgecombe Avenue, working with other African American physicians at the Edgecombe Sanitarium for non-white patients. She attended most of her patients in her office or in their own homes, even for surgery in some cases. Her interest in the early cancer diagnosis developed during these years, as she saw many patients who were very ill with terminal diseases, often late-stage cancer.
Like all other black physicians in the New York area in the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Chinn was barred from any association with the city's hospitals. She had tried to learn more about cancer after observing advanced stage terminal illness among her patients, but when she asked for research information about her patients from the city's hospital clinics, they refused. Chinn decided to accompany her patients to their clinic appointments, explaining that she was the patient's family physician. In so doing, she could learn more about biopsy techniques while securing a firm diagnosis for her patients. Such resourcefulness typified Chinn's approach to the barriers she faced during her career.
In the early 1930s, Chinn studied cytological methods for cancer detection with George Papanicolaou, noted for his work on the Pap smear test for cervical cancer, becoming an advocate for cancer screening to detect cancer at its earliest stages.
In 1944, Dr. Chinn was invited by Dr. Elise Strang L'Esperance, founder of the Strang Cancer Clinic at Memorial Hospital, to take a position in the Tuesday afternoon cancer clinic. Chinn accepted. The following year L'Esperance gave her a staff position at the Strang Clinic at the New York Infirmary, and Chinn stayed with the clinic until her retirement in 1974. While there, Chinn promoted cancer screening methods for non-symptomatic patients, routine Pap smears, and the use of family medical histories to predict cancer risk.
In 1954 Dr. May Edward Chinn became a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, and in 1957 she received a citation from the New York City Cancer Committee of the American Cancer Society. In 1980 Columbia University awarded her an honorary doctorate of science for her contributions to medicine.