Chinn, May Edward 1896–1980

views updated May 14 2018

May Edward Chinn 18961980


At a Glance


May Edward Chinn led an unusual life for a woman of her time and race. She was a pioneer in many respects. Chinn was the first African American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College, the first African American woman intern at Harlem Hospital, the first female physician to ride with ambulance crews of Harlem Hospital for emergency calls, the first African American woman, and for several years the only woman, to practice medicine in Harlem, and the first African American woman to receive cidmitting privileges at Harlem Hospital. Despite the many restrictions placed on African American doctors, Chinn creatively conquered these obstacles in order to provide the quality of care her patients deserved. She had an intense interest in the early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, which led her to a rewarding 29-year staff position with the renowned Strang Clinic. She continued her private practice in Harlem until she retired at the age of 81.

Chinn was born April 15, 1896 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Her father, William Lafayette Chinn, the son of a slave and a plantation owner, had escaped slavery when he was a child. Her mother had been born on a Virginia reservation, her parents a Chicka hominy Indian and a slave. Believing New York City to be a place of opportunity, the Chinn family moved there when May was three years old. The Chinns experienced the severe poverty that marked the African American and immigrant experience in New York City at the turn of the century. Chinns mother believed that education was the key to escaping poverty, and was determined that her daughter would receive quality schooling. Chinns father found it difficult to find work, but her mother worked steadily at cleaning houses. Despite her meager salary, Chinns mother managed to send her daughter to a boarding school for African American children in New Jersey. However, Chinn contracted osteomyelitis of her jaw while at the Bor-dentown Manual Training and Industrial School and had to return home in 1901. She underwent nine surgeries to combat the infection.

Chinns mother had gotten a job cleaning and cooking at the Tiffany family mansion in upstate New York. The Tiffanys were well known for the stained-glass lamps that bore the family name. When Chinn came back from boarding school, she lived in the Tiffany mansion because her mother was live-in help. The Tiffany family treated Chinn as if she were their own child. She ate

At a Glance

Born in 1896 in Great Barrington, MA; died on December 1, 1980, in New York, NY; daughter of William Lafayette Chinn and Lulu Ann Chinn. Education: Columbia University Teachers College, B.S. 1921; Belleview Hospital Medical School, MD, 1926; Columbia University, M.S., 1933.

Career : Intern, Harlem Hospital, 1926-28; general practice physician, 1926-78; attending physician, Strang Clinic, Memorial Hospital, New York, NY, 1944-73; consultant to the Phelps-Stokes Fund, Harlem, 1978-80.

Selected awards : Honorary doctorate, Columbia University; Distinguished Alumnus Award, Columbia Teachers College.

Member: National Urban League, American Cancer Society, New York County and New York State Medical Societies; American Medical Society.

with the Tiffany children, received lessons in French and German, and attended plays and concerts with them. It was during this time that Chinn developed her love of music.

When Chinns mother finished working for the Tiffany mansion, the family was reunited in New York City. She encouraged her daughter to take piano lessons, and moved the family from place to place so that Chinn could attend the best schools. Chinn learned to play the piano, sang, and gave recitals.

On Chinns 16th birthday, her parents gave her a piano. An older, widowed businessman also asked for her hand in marriage, but she refused. Although Chinns mother supported her decision, her father began to resent her interest in music and her refusal to marry. Despite her fathers disapproval, she sang and acted in musical productions and developed a lifelong interest in securing human rights for women and African Americans.

Chinn dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade, a decision which greatly upset her mother. To support herself, she worked in a factory and gave piano lessons to young children. Chinns life changed dramatically when a friend convinced her to take the entrance exam for Columbia Universitys Teachers College. She scored so well on the exam that she was able to enroll in the college, even though she had not finished high school. Although Chinns mother was very pleased, her father was unwilling to pay for her college education. He believed that a woman should not be educated, but find satisfaction only as a wife and mother. However, Chinns mother had secretly saved money, and was able to pay for her daughters first two years of tuition.

Chinn planned to study music at Columbia, believing that she would be able to teach piano and perform at concerts as a career. However, she was the only woman and African American in the class. A naturally shy person, Chinn could not bear her professors ridicule and uncooperative attitude. The professor strongly believed that African Americans could not excel as classical musicians. Chinn realized that in order for her to gain experience as a performer she would have to go to Europe, where discrimination against African Americans was less prevalent. If she stayed in the United States, she would probably be only able to perform as a nightclub singer. In the midst of her dilemma another professor, Jean Broadhurst, encouraged Chinn to pursue a career in science after reading her research paper on sewage disposal. Chinn eventually decided to begin training to become a clinical pathologist.

The Chinn family lived in Harlem, which at the time was a neighborhood of white, upper-middle-class people and one filled with upscale shops, department stores, theaters, and an opera house. Chinn lived with her parents and walked to her classes at Columbia University. As Harlems African American community grew, so did its culture. African American writers, musicians, and singers moved to Harlem. Chinn met several of these artists, including Paul Robeson, who would become a highly successful actor and singer. She began accompanying Robeson on piano and traveled with him to his performances. The two eventually separated as they became immersed in their own careers.

After graduating from college, Chinn decided to become a doctor. When she made her decision to become a doctor, only 65 of the 150,000 doctors in the United States were African American women. She applied to Bellevue Medical Hospital and was accepted. Chinn began her medical studies in 1922, and attended classes during the day while working in a pathology laboratory at night. In 1926, she became the first African American woman to graduate from Bellevue Medical College.

During her internship at Harlem Hospital, Chinn faced discrimination. As the hospitals first African American female doctor, she was resented by her male colleagues. Chinn began going on emergency calls with the ambulances in order to escape the unfriendly atmosphere. No woman had ever gone on emergency calls before.

Upon completing her internship, Chinn began a medical practice in Harlem. She continued to live with her parents in the same building as her practice, and hoped to eventually earn enough money to support her parents. Racial discrimination was rampant during the 1920s and 1930s, and Chinn was prohibited from practicing medicine in most New York City hospitals. African American doctors had to set up their own hospitals in order to perform surgery and other procedures. Chinn operated her private practice during the day. At night, she offered her services as the night-duty physician at the Edgecombe Sanitarium, a small hospital owned by seven African American doctors. She spent many hours helping poor women, African Americans, and other minorities would could not receive medical treatment elsewhere. Her medical practice and reputation as a compassionate doctor began to grow steadily. As Harlem changed from a prosperous cultural community into a crowded, crime-and poverty-infested community, Chinns practice changed as well. Living conditions for many people in Harlem were poor. She often operated on patients in their own homes because African American doctors were still barred from practicing medicine in most hospitals. Beds or ironing boards were used as operating tables, and instruments were sterilized on coal stoves. After witnessing the horrible living conditions of her patients, Chinn became interested in public health issues. She went back to Columbia, and earned a masters degree in public health.

In 1928 Chinn studied with Dr. George Papanicolaou, the developer of the pap test for cervical cancer. She was especially interested in treating women and yearned to know more about their special problems, including cancer. Chinn wanted to find new ways to detect and treat various forms of cancer. Because she was unable to gain entry into most hospitals and clinics, she used a bit of trickery to gain entry so that she could observe cancer biopsies being performed. Eventually, she learned enough to begin performing her own biopsies.

In 1940 Chinn finally gained admitting privileges at Harlem Hospital, thanks to Mayor LaGuardias committees established after the 1935 Harlem riots. The committee findings helped to bring about change. Chinn quickly gained a reputation as a skilled medical doctor. In 1944 the founder of the Strang Clinics, Dr. Elise Strang LEsperance, invited Chinn to join her staff. The Strang Clinics were known for their study and prevention of cancer. Chinn worked for the Strang Clinics for 29 years while maintaining her private practice in Harlem.

Chinn continued to develop her interest in civil rights. She joined Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.s march on Washington in 1963, and listened as he delivered his famous I Have A Dream speech. Chinn worked on other important causes throughout her life. In 1975, she founded a society to help African American women who wanted to attend medical school. At the age of 81, Chinn retired from private practice. In 1978, she became a consultant to the Phelps-Stokes Fund and treated children in day care centers in Harlem. On December 1, 1980, Chinn passed away after collapsing at a reception held at Columbia University to honor one of her friends.



Butts, Ellen R. and Schwartz, Joyce R., May Chinn. The Best Medicine, Scientific American, 1995.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from

Sandy J. Stiefer

May Edward Chinn

views updated May 14 2018

May Edward Chinn

Mary Edward Chinn (1896-1890) is best remembered for the racial barriers she confronted as one of the first black women physicians in New York City.

May Edward Chinn is best remembered for the racial barriers she confronted as one of the first black women physicians in New York City. Denied hospital privileges and research opportunities at New York City hospitals early in her career, she became a family doctor in Harlem, where she was the only practicing African American woman physician for several years. For her determination to provide medical care to the disadvantaged and for her work in cancer detection, she received honorary doctor of science degrees from New York University and Columbia University, and a distinguished alumnus award from Columbia Teachers College.

May Edward Chinn was born on April 15, 1896, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Her mother, Lulu Ann, was the daughter of a Chickahominy Native American and a slave. Her father, William Lafayette, was the son of a slave and a plantation owner. Chinn went to the Bordentown Manual and Training Industrial School, a boarding school in New Jersey, and spent one year of her childhood on the estate of Charles Tiffany, the jewelry magnate, where her mother was a live-in cook. The Tiffanys treated Chinn like family and took her to classical music concerts in New York City. She later learned to play the piano and became an accompanist to popular singer Paul Robeson in the early 1920s. Chinn played classical music and church music throughout her life and performed for African American soldiers during World War I. Although she never completed high school, she was admitted to Columbia Teachers College on the basis of her entrance examination. Originally intending to pursue a degree in music, Chinn quickly abandoned music for science because a music professor who believed that African Americans were unsuited for classical music ridiculed her, but another professor praised her for a paper she had written on sewage disposal. In 1921 she received a bachelor's degree in science from Columbia Teachers College, and in 1926 she became the first African American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College.

Upon graduation Chinn found that no hospital would allow her practicing privileges. The Rockefeller Institute had seriously considered her for a research fellowship until they discovered that she was African American. With her fair skin and last name, many assumed that she was white or Chinese. She later told Muriel Petioni, former president of the Society of Black Women Physicians, that African American workers often snubbed her because they assumed she was passing as white, and they did not want to jeopardize her position.

Though she was the first black woman intern at Harlem Hospital, racial and gender discrimination kept her from obtaining hospital privileges there. Chinn described her early practice in Harlem as akin to an old-fashioned family practice in the rural South a century earlier. She performed major medical procedures in patient's homes, while minor procedures were done in her office. She told George Davis of the New York Times Magazine "that conditions were so bad that it seemed that you were not making any headway." To get at the roots of poverty, she earned a master's degree in public health from Columbia University in 1933.

In the 1940s Chinn became very interested in cancer but was still prohibited from establishing formal affiliations with New York hospitals. Instead, she had her patients' biopsies read secretly for her at Memorial Hospital. In 1944 she was invited to join the staff of the Strang Clinic, a premier cancer detection facility affiliated with Memorial and New York Infirmary hospitals. She worked there for twenty-nine years and became a member of the Society of Surgical Oncology.

In her autobiographical paper written in 1977, Chinn noted that the committees established by Mayor LaGuardia after the Harlem riots of 1935 were pivotal in integrating blacks into medicine in New York City. As committee findings were reported in the newspapers, conditions began to change. Chinn saw this firsthand when she became the first African American woman granted admitting privileges at Harlem Hospital in 1940.

African American male doctors were another source of discrimination. In a New York Times interview with Charlayne Hunter-Gault in 1977, she described three types: "those who acted as if I wasn't there; another who took the attitude 'what does she think that she can do that I can't do?' and the group that called themselves support[ive] by sending me their night calls after midnight." Like other African American women physicians of her era, Chinn worked long hours but never got rich from her practice. By 1978 Chinn had given up her practice and begun examining African American students as a consultant to the Phelps-Stokes Fund. In late 1980 she died at age eighty-four at a Columbia University reception honoring a friend.

Further Reading

Brozan, Nadine, "For a Doctor at 84, A Day to Remember," in New York Times, May 17, 1980, p. 12.

Davis, George, "A Healing Hand in Harlem," in New York Times Magazine, Apr. 22, 1979, pp. 40 +.

Ennis, Thomas W., "Obituary: Dr. May Edward Chinn, 84, Long a Harlem Physician," in New York Times, Sect. II, Dec. 3, 1980, p. 11.

Hunter-Gault, Charlayne, "Black Women M.D.'s: Spirit and Endurance," in New York Times, Nov. 16, 1977, pp. C1 +.

Petioni, Muriel, Interview with Laura Newman, conducted on March 11, 1994. □