The Doctor Of Perseverance

The Doctor Of Perseverance

Written on 10/31/2021

In 1926 Dr. May Edward Chinn was the first African American woman to graduate from Bellvue Hospital Medical College. Chinn was also the first African American woman to intern at Harlem Hospital as well as the first African American to ride with the ambulance crew on emergency calls. 

Excerpt from the National Library of Medicine

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.

“I remember thinking,” Dr. Chinn says of the days when she was the first Negro woman intern at Harlem Hospital, “that being a doctor was like waking up in a strange place and not knowing how I got there. The only thing to do was unpack and try to make myself at home."

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