Happy Birthday May Edward Chinn!
On April 15, 1896 May Edward Chinn was born to William Lafayette Chinn, an escaped slave, and Lulu Ann Evans, a Native American from the Chickahominy Indian Reservation.
Chinn was sent to boarding school at a young ago but soon would have to return after she became ill with osteomyelitis of the jaw, an infectious inflammatory bone disease. She would have to spend time with her mother who worked as a live-in domestic worker for the Tiffany family in New York City.
This Tiffany family was no ordinary family, they were the Tiffany’s as in the famous Tiffany & Co known for stained glass and big diamond rings. Living with the Tiffany’s meant that Chinn was exposed to everything they were, helping her to receive a very good secondary education – music lessons, art, language and just overall culture.
She never received an official high school diploma but was still accepted into Columbia University Teachers College in 1917. Her plan was to major in music, she even began playing piano as a professional accompanist. But a paper she wrote for a hygiene class impressed her professor so much that Chinn was encouraged to seek a science degree instead.
Chinn was pushed into science not only because she was a promising student but faculty on campus were brutally honest with 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”. And with that she became a science major. After graduating from Columbia Teachers College with a bachelor’s degree in science Chinn went on to study at and graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College.
In 1928, after completing an internship at Harlem Hospital Chinn struggled to find work as an African-American woman. At the time African-Americans were not, “granted admitting privileges or special residencies at any hospitals”.
Chinn decided to take matters into her own hands and open a private practice. She worked with other African-American physicians at the Edgecombe Sanitarium for non-white patients. Chinn saw many of her patients at their own homes, even performing surgery at their homes in some cases. It was during this time she developed a fascination with cancer research as she kept seeing patients with late-stage cancer.
With her growing interest in cancer research Chin attempted to learn more but city hospitals repeatedly denied her access to more information. Again Chinn was not to be discourages, she started accompanying her patients to their clinic appointments as their family physician. This way she was able to learn more about biopsy techniques and further cancer research.
In the 1930s Chinn was able to work with George Papanicolaou, known for his work on the Pap smear test for cervical cancer, studying cytological methods for cancer detection. Chinn would become a huge advocate of the Pap smear test. Later in 1944 the founder of the Strang Cancer Clinic at Memorial Hospital, Dr. Elise Strang L’Esperance, invited Chinn to take a position in the cancer clinic. In 1945 Chinn was already moving up, being offered a staff position at the Strang Clinic at the New York Infirmary. Chinn would work here until she retired in 1974.
Chinn had to wait years to receive the recognition she deserved, “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”. It was not until the year of her death, 1980, that Columbia University would award her an honorary doctorate of science for her incredible contributions to medicine.
Happy Birthday May Edward Chinn!