May Edward Chinn did not plan on becoming a doctor
Originally she wanted to be a musician, but she changed from music to science after receiving encouragement from a professor at Columbia Teachers College. This fortuitous decision led to a distinguished career in medicine.
When May Chinn died in 1980, she was the recipient of honorary degrees from New York University and Columbia University. Her work in cancer research helped in the development of the Pap smear, a test for early detection of cervical cancer. She was the first African-American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College, one of the first female African-American physicians in New York City, and the first African-American woman to intern at Harlem Hospital.
Chinn's father escaped slavery from a Virginia plantation at the age of 11. Her mother was an indigenous American from the Chickahominy tribe who placed great value on education. She worked as a live-in housekeeper for the Tiffanys, the well-known family of artisans and jewelers, in their mansion on Long Island. She saved money from her meager wages to send May to a boarding school in New Jersey, an experience which ended when May contracted osteomyelitis of the jaw and returned to New York for surgery.
The Tiffanys treated young May as family and exposed her to music, which would become her lifelong hobby. They also taught her German and French. When patriarch Charles Tiffany died, May and her mother moved back to New York City.
Chinn continued her schooling but did not complete high school, she said, due to poverty and heartache over a lost boyfriend. She decided to take the entrance examinations for Columbia Teachers College on a whim, when a friend received a scholarship there. To her surprise, she passed the exams and enrolled in 1917. In her senior year, Chinn found a job in clinical pathology as a lab technician. She worked full time in the lab, completing her courses at night. She graduated in 1921 and continued working.
In 1926 she graduated from Bellevue Medical School and interned at Harlem Hospital. During this time she rode along with the paramedics on ambulance calls--and was the first woman to do it. She could not get privileges at the hospitals when she graduated, so she started her own family practice. She treated people who otherwise would not have received medical care and she often went into dangerous neighborhoods. Because of her interest in improving the health conditions of her patients in Harlem, she took a master's degree in Public Health from Columbia University in 1933.
During the 1940s, May Chinn became interested in the diseases of her elderly patients, many of whom developed cancer. Although she had finally received admitting privileges at Harlem Hospital in 1940, she could practice at no other hospital. She finally started working at the Strang Clinic, a cancer research facility, in 1944, and practiced there in addition to her private practice for 29 years. Chinn became a member of the Society of Surgical Oncology and in 1975 started a society to help African-American women go to medical school. She also served on the Surgeon-General's advisory committee on urban affairs. She did not retire from private practice until she was 81 years old.