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.
- Published in Profile of Women In Medicine