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On this date in 1896, May Chinn was born. She was a Black African and Native American physician.
Chinn's father escaped slavery from a Virginia plantation at 11. Her mother was an indigenous Native from the Chickahominy tribe who placed great value on education. She worked as a live-in housekeeper for the Tiffany's, the well-known family of artisans and jewelers, in their mansion on Long Island. She saved money from her wages to send May to a boarding school in New Jersey, an experience which ended when she contracted osteomyelitis of the jaw and returned to New York for surgery. The Tiffany's treated young May as family and exposed her to music, which would become her lifelong hobby. They also taught her German and French. When patriarch Charles Tiffany died, May and her mother moved back to New York City
May Edward Chinn did not plan on becoming a doctor. Originally she wanted to be a musician, but she changed from music to science after receiving encouragement from a professor at Columbia Teachers College. This decision led to a distinguished career in medicine. She decided to take the entrance examinations for Columbia Teachers College on a whim when a friend received a scholarship there. To her surprise, she passed the exams and enrolled in 1917. In her senior year, Chinn found a job in clinical pathology as a lab technician. She worked full-time in the lab, completing her courses at night. She graduated in 1921 and continued working.
In 1926 she graduated from Bellevue Medical School and interned at Harlem Hospital. She rode along with the paramedics on ambulance calls as the first woman to do it. When she graduated, she could not get privileges at the hospitals, so she started her own family practice. She treated people who otherwise would not have received medical care and often went into dangerous neighborhoods. Because of her interest in improving her patient's health conditions in Harlem, she took a master's degree in Public Health from Columbia University in 1933.
During the 1940s, May Chinn became interested in the diseases of her elderly patients, many of whom developed cancer. Although she had finally received admitting privileges at Harlem Hospital in 1940, she could practice at no other hospital. She finally started working at the Strang Clinic, a cancer research facility, in 1944 and practiced there in addition to her private practice for 29 years. Chinn became a member of the Society of Surgical Oncology and, in 1975, started a society to help African American women attend medical school.
When May Chinn died in 1980, she received honorary degrees from New York University and Columbia University. Her work in cancer research helped develop the Pap smear, a test for early detection of cervical cancer. She also served on the Surgeon-General's advisory committee on urban affairs. She did not retire from private practice until she was 81 years old.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York