Dr. May Edward Chinn is the first Black woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College and the first woman to intern at Harlem Hospital. Although Chinn never graduated from high school, she had the good fortune of being exposed to education in a fashion many young Black girls never experienced in her time.
Chinn was born in Great Barrington, Mass. on April 16, 1896. The granddaughter of slaves, Chinn was raised by her mother, who was the live-in cook for the family that owned the jewelry company, Tiffany and Co. Chinn’s mother earned enough to send her daughter to boarding school, but money eventually became scarce and she had to drop out.
Because she grew up in an environment that exposed her to various levels of culture, Chinn was able to navigate in the world without her diploma. She boldly took an exam to enter Columbia University’s Teachers College and graduated in 1921. Five years later, she earned her M.D. from Bellevue.
Chinn’s last name and light skin confused many hiring managers who thought she was either white or Chinese, but shunned her when they discovered she was a Black woman. She was forced to open a private practice as a result of not being able to find work after her Harlem Hospital internship. She turned her attention to underserved groups who suffered from cancer.
In 1944, this led to Chinn joining the Strang Clinic in New York to continue her cancer research. She worked for the clinic for 29 years, pioneering early cancer detection via Pap smears and genetic screening. She was named a member of the Society of Surgical Oncology and in 1975, she founded a group to promote Black women who wanted to attend medical school.
Dr. Chinn died in 1980 at the age of 84.