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 on May Edward Chinn

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.