Several years ago when we first launched this column, Dr. May E. Chinn was one of the first entries. Recent discussion around her importance, particularly in Harlem, prompts us to return to this luminary and renew what should never be a forgotten personality. Chinn was born in 1896, the same year of the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the birthplace of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. Her father was born into slavery in Virginia but he escaped when he was 11. Her mother was a Native American from the Chickahominy reservation near Norfolk, Va.
Chinn’s mother was a hardworking housekeeper for the famed Tiffany family, and this afforded her the opportunity to be exposed to an elite cultural background. In 1917, after only a rudimentary early education, she was accepted into Columbia University Teachers College.
At first her major was music, but this plan changed after she wrote a paper on hygiene and her professor encouraged her to use her gifts in medicine. By 1921 she was a student at the Bellevue Hospital and encountered both racial and female discrimination, but she persisted. Later, she was successful in obtaining an internship at Harlem Hospital and supplemented her training and income through private practice with a sanatorium on Edgecombe Avenue for non-white patients.
She was among a few doctors interested in early cancer diagnosis and subsequently studied cytological methods with Dr. George Papanicolaou, and this led to her becoming instrumental in developing the PAP smear test. In 1954, she became a member of the New York Academy of Science, and Columbia University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1957 for her contributions to science. Marginalized patients, particularly in Harlem, were beneficiaries of her medical skills and compassion, which she dispensed for more than 50 years.
Chinn’s pioneering career brought in its wake such distinctions as being the first Black woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College, and the first African American to hold an internship at Harlem Hospital. She was also an accomplished pianist and her early years often accompanied Paul Robeson. A wonderful moment when she first met the great singer, actor, activist is novelized in “Angel of Harlem” by Kuwana Haulsey. There is no way that she could have known factually much of what she has written, but the people she mentions, many of the incidents and historical citations are true. But here’s her take on Chinn’s first encounter with Robeson. “Pardon me Miss Chinn. I’m afraid my accompanist hasn’t arrived yet. And I understand that you are a marvelous accompanist. Would you do me the honor of accompanying me this afternoon? That voice,” Haulsey wrote, imagining Chinn’s response to Robeson’s request.
“I turned around and found myself at eye level with a golden Phi Beta Kappa key and an All-American football emblem,” the imagined Chinn related. “The pendants dangled from a watch chain across the barrel chest of a young man in a dark blue three-piece suit. We’d never met before, but like everyone else, I knew exactly who he was.
“Of course, Paul,” I said, “I’d love to.
“I looked right up into his face and thought, He must be the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. Seal brown skin. Wide nose. Hefty, cushioned lips. The gums like blackberries. He had the softest eyes in the world. The young man beamed at me, a broad full-rich smile that seemed to take in everything in the room, including my heart. Paul Robeson.
“He handed me his sheet music, then held his giant arm out for me to grab. ‘Shall we get started then? You know, I really appreciate this, May. I can call you May, can’t I? I’ve heard so much about you around town. It’s good to finally meet you in person.’
“My mouth fell open,” the novel continued. “Imagine, Paul Robeson telling me that he was glad we finally met! Incredible.”
And Haulsey’s novel goes on in such an incredible but believable way that you are never quite sure about the difference between the real and the imagined.
In her book’s closing epitaph, Haulsey wrote, “The doctor lived quietly and alone, in the projects along LaSalle Avenue for all the later years of her life. Surrounded by her mother’s antique furniture and her memories, Dr. May settled into retirement in the late 1970s. Her eyes had begun to fail, and the city had changed. Better to leave the job to young people who’d come behind her.”
Before her death in 1980, Chinn pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and the NY Metro Council provides a scholarship to a medical student in her name each year.