Dr. May Edward Chinn born on April15th, 1896, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, but grew up in New York City. Her father was born into slavery in Virginia but he escaped when he was 11. Her mother was Native American from the Chickahominy reservation near Norfolk, Virginia.
As a young child she stayed with her mother who was a live in housekeeper at the Tiffany family, famed American jewelry magnates. Living on the estate she was exposed to all of the education that the Tiffany children were: culture, the arts, languages, etc. She received a very rich early education and secondary education. Although for whatever reason, she never officially received a high school diploma, she was accepted into Columbia University Teachers College in 1917. Her original plan was to major in music, but that changed when she wrote a paper on hygiene and her professor, recognizing her great talents, encouraged her to go into science.
In 1921 May graduated from Columbia Teachers College and went on to study medicine at Bellevue Hospital Medical College. As a Black woman, May faced adversity every step of the way, but she persisted and succeeded.
During the 1920’s Black physicians were not granted admitting privileges or residencies at any hospital. So after graduating from Bellevue she interned at the Harlem Hospital. She opened a private practice on Edgecombe Sanitarium for non-white patients. She often attended patients in their homes, even for surgery, as well as in her office. Her interest in early cancer diagnosis developed during these years. Research information however, was denied her from various institutions. In the end, she was clever, and when her patients went to specialists, she accompanied them as their general physician of record, herby learning much more about their conditions and treatments. She often had to be resourceful in her career, and always persisted.
Dr. Chinn studied cytological methods with Dr. George Papanicolaou, during the 1930’s becoming an advocate for early cancer screening and detection. She was instrumental in developing the PAP smear during this time.
In 1954 Dr. Chinn became a member of the New York Academy of Science and Columbia University awarded her an honorary Doctorate in 1957 for her many contributions to Science. She was a tireless advocate, especially for the poor who had few resources. She practiced in Harlem for over 50 years.
She was the first African American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1926.
She was the first African American to hold an internship at Harlem Hospital in 1928.
She was the first woman to ride with the Harlem Hospital ambulance crew.