In this episode of “How Is It Possible We Never Learned About This Woman?”, we introduce you to Dr. May Edward Chinn, an extraordinary woman who, in addition to achieving several medical firsts, was instrumental in the development of the PAP smear in the early 1930s. Born April 15, 1896, today would have been her 121st birthday, and telling her story is our gift to her and anyone who doesn’t know her.
Dr. May Edward Chinn…
the first African American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College (1926)
the first African American woman to hold an internship at Harlem Hospital (1928)
the first woman to ride with the Harlem Hospital ambulance crew on emergency calls
May was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and grew up in New York City. Her father was born into slavery in Virginia, but escaped at age 11, and her mother was a Native American from the Chickahominy Indian reservation near Norfolk, Virginia.
As a young girl May went to stay with her mother, then a live-in housekeeper for the Tiffany family (yep… that Tiffany… as in Louis Comfort Tiffany, acclaimed artist best known for his stained glass, and son of famed American jewelery magnate Charles Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co.).
Living on the estate, May was exposed to everything the Tiffany children were: culture, art, music, and languages. In turn, she received a good secondary education from the family, but never officially completed high school. Despite not having an actual diploma, she was accepted to Columbia University Teachers College in 1917. Her original plan was to major in music, but that changed during her first year thanks to a paper she wrote for a hygiene class. Her professor was impressed with her, and encouraged May to consider a major in science. In that moment, her life changed, as would the field of medicine thanks to May.
In 1921, she received a bachelor’s degree in science from Columbia Teachers College, and went on to Bellevue Hospital Medical College. As a black woman, May faced adversity every step of the way, but fought through it all and achieved incredible success.
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 [Dr.] 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.
A tireless advocate for poor patients with advanced, often previously untreated diseases, as well as a champion for cancer screening to detect cancer at its earliest stages, May Edward Chinn practiced medicine in Harlem for fifty years and died on December 1, 1980.