Saturday, April 15, 2017

May Edward Chinn and her breakthrough cancer research

SRPS Women in Medicine: May Edward Chinn
(April 15, 1896 - December 1, 1980)

May Edward Chinn had originally wanted a career in music, but was warned that it would be difficult because of her race, so she turned her full attention to the other field where her talents were obvious: science. As a senior at Columbia Teacher's College, she took a lab tech position in pathology lab, and from there she decided to attend medical school. In 1926, she became the first African American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College and to intern at Harlem Hospital.

Her path was not easy. In the 1920s, no hospitals or research facilities would hire African Americans. The Rockerfeller Institute was very interested her until they learned she was black instead of Asian or white as they had assumed from her name. Instead, she started a private practice based out of Harlem --  the center of the Black community -- seeing patients in her office or in their homes. It was this experience of seeing how the conditions people lived in impacted their overall health that led her to complete a master's degree in public health from Columbia University in 1933.

After the Harlem Riots in 1935 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia demanded local institutions do a better job of integrating their staff. So in 1940, fourteen years after she graduated from medical school, Dr. Chinn was finally granted admitting privileges to Harlem Hospital.

In 1944, she took a position at the Strang Clinic, where she worked for several decades on cancer research, a topic she was interested in after serving the aging population of Harlem. She noticed that many of her older patients were dying from various cancers rather than heart attacks or other illness, and she wondered if there were ways to predict or detect cancers early enough to have them treated. It was her research for Dr. Papanikolaou that eventually led to the development of the Pap smear, a life-saving test for early detection of cervical cancer.

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