The Heroine of Harlem
May was a musician. An incredibly talented pianist. She spent several years as accompanist for Paul Robeson (a renowned performer best known for his rendition of “Ol’ Man River”). She entered Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1917, with plans to major in music. Her racist professors made the experience hellish, giving her lower grades than the white students.
“[I was told] 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,” May explained.
Dr. Jean Broadhurst, a professor at Teachers College, was impressed by a paper May had written on sanitation. She invited May to consider switching her major to science.
“If I chose science, my chances were better for a good future,” May concluded.
May Edward Chinn was born in 1896. Her father, William, was formerly enslaved by the owners of the Virginia Cheyne (Chinn) plantation. Her mother, Lulu, was a Native American from the Chickahominy Indian reservation near Norfolk, Virginia; the daughter of a slave. The couple met in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and before long little May was born. They moved to New York a few years later.
Lulu went to work as a live-in cook for the wealthy Tiffany family of jewelers in New York city. At the Tiffanys’ Long Island mansion, May received music, French, and German lessons with the other children. The Tiffanys sold the property when the family patriarch died, and the Chinns moved to an apartment in Harlem. It was an amazing time to be Black in Harlem. From the 1910s to the mid-1930s, the neighborhood flourished with African American culture: transforming into a vibrant mecca for writers, musicians, artists, and performers. This is when May met Paul Robeson.
To her mother’s chagrin, May dropped out of high school in eleventh grade and began supporting herself by working in a factory and giving children music lessons. A friend convinced her to take the Teachers College entrance exam, which she easily aced. When her father refused to pay for her education (believing it unnecessary for women), her mother’s savings proved enough to cover the cost of her first two years of college. May continued to live with her parents while pursuing her degree.
Her intellect and musical talent had opened the doors of college to her, but they weren't enough to overcome the insidious racism of the faculty there. Thankfully, Dr. Broadhurst recognized music wasn’t the only subject May had a genius for. May switched her major and became Broadhurst’s assistant in the pathology lab. This is such a wonderful example of the importance of women faculty or administrators in science and medicine: both to act as examples and as mentors who seek out and cultivate other women in the field.
She completed her bachelor’s degree in 1921, then, in 1926, May became the first Black woman to graduate from the University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College (now the NYU School of Medicine). The Rockefeller Institute offered May a research fellowship, only to rescind the offer when they learned she was Black. Instead, she became the first Black woman to hold an internship at Harlem Hospital, at a time when the hospital took only white patients.
May was also one of the first women of any race to ride on the hospital’s ambulance crew. Black workers snubbed her because they believed she was using her paler complexion to pass for white (she was often mistaken for Asian).
It was a fraught time to be a Black physician at Harlem Hospital. A mass exodus of white staff occurred after the hiring of several Black nurses and (male) physicians. Many of those that didn’t resign treated these Black healthcare workers abominably. Tensions came to a head in 1927 when a white intern threw a glass of water in Black senior resident Aubré Maynard’s face. The mayor was called in after the ensuing near-riot. He fired 23 white and two Black physicians, and appointed a dozen black doctors in their stead.
When the hospital administrators refused to extend practicing privileges to May, she established her own practice on Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. She delivered any and all medical care in her office or in patients’ homes—even surgery. Coal stoves sterilized instruments; ironing boards became operating tables. May was associated with the collective of Black doctors who’d opened the Edgecombe Sanitarium for patients of color. It was caring for severely ill, late-stage cancer patients that sparked May’s interest in cancer research.
Hoping to learn more about her patients’ diagnoses and earlier treatment, she asked the city's hospital clinics for research information about them. They refused. Not to be deterred, she started accompanying her patients on their clinic appointments to learn more. She also sought out her former professor, Dr. George Papanicolaou, and began working with him on biopsy techniques that could catch cancer in its earliest stages. Papanicolaou was hard at work developing the cervical cancer screening tool that would eventually become known as the Pap smear.
At a time when most cancer treatment was “too little, too late”—especially for Black patients—May became a vocal advocate for early cancer screening, screening of non-symptomatic patients, and using family medical history to help determine people’s cancer risk. She also questioned the veracity of the widely accepted theory that Africans didn’t get cancer as often as people of European descent.
A lifelong learner, May earned a master's degree in public health from Columbia University in 1933.
Harlem Hospital finally gave May admitting privileges in 1940. This wasn’t because of any newfound benevolence on the part of the hospital administrators, but because of a change in the rules resulting from the Harlem Riot of 1935: Black physicians had been granted admitting privileges at all New York hospitals.
May was invited to join the Strang Cancer Clinic, where she dedicated her career to conducting cancer research until 1974. As if she hadn’t contributed enough to the world, May went on to establish a society to promote the medical school attendance of Black women after retiring from Strang. Her private practice in Harlem remained open until she retired in 1977 at the age of 81.
When I think of all that sexism and racism have robbed humanity of it makes me nauseous, livid. Racism has robbed people of their lives, freedom, health, rights, education, healthcare, jobs, housing, families, histories, their self worth and joy. Sexism and racism have robbed countless people of the ability to freely pursue their passions.
I’m infinitely thankful for May’s contributions to medicine, but I wish I could hear her play the piano. I wonder what kind of music she would have made, what orchestra or band she would have played with if her racist teachers hadn’t bullied her out of music. Get your Pap smear, people! It’s what May would’ve wanted.
“Treating Harlem: Dr. May Edward Chinn” — Helix, February 5, 2019.
Angel of Harlem. (2006) A novelization of May’s life, by Kuwana Haulsey.
Dr. May Edward Chinn, Columbia University February 2020 Alumni Highlights.
More about me
Pre-order my book: Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine, out March 2, 2021 from HarperCollins/Park Row Books.