Treating Harlem: Dr. May Edward Chinn

Celebrating remarkable scientists for Black History Month

“It is almost as if the [cancer] became the target of all the frustration and anger Dr. Chinn felt at the racial and sexual discrimination she encountered in her own life and in those of her patients.”
– George Davis, “A Healing Hand In Harlem.” The New York Times, 1979

Some illnesses have a defined origin—a specific point in history that we can point to and say, “This is where it began.” Cancer is not one of them. Suggestive marks in the bones of ancient humans tells us that cancer has likely been a problem for organisms since our beginning, and probably longer1. Though we can’t say when it began, we are getting better at treating it. Some cancer screening practices have helped us detect and treat cancer early, before it can advance to a lethal stage, thus saving countless lives. Such practices haven’t always been around, but thanks to scientists like Dr. May Edward Chinn, screening has become a routine and life-saving practice.

Dr. Chinn was many things: A high school dropout, a talented and successful pianist, the first African-American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College, and, above all else, a dedicated and compassionate physician. A longtime advocate for cancer screening practices, Dr. Chinn’s research on cancer aided in the development of a well known screening tool: the Pap smear2-4.

 

The sooner you can detect cancer, the better your odds of removing it

Cancer screening is the process of looking for evidence of cancer before a person has obvious symptoms of it. The idea is that the sooner you can detect cancer, the better your odds are for removing or eliminating it5. Dr. Chinn recognized this early in her medical career. Institutional racism of the era barred African-Americans from practicing medicine in private hospitals, making it very difficult for her to find facilities where she could see and attend to patients. Despite these challenges, Dr. Chinn was able to build a name for herself as a skilled physician among the residents of Harlem by attending to her patients in their homes. It was during these early years that she found many patients who had breast cancer, but no obvious symptoms of it. When detected early, she had a better chance of removing the tumor and saving the patient. From this, she saw value in screening patients for breast cancer by the simple test of feeling for lumps in their chest2-4.

 

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Before medicine, there was music

    Before she was a skilled physician, Dr. Chinn was an accomplished pianist. She grew up with a love of music and had quickly made a splash in Harlem as gifted pianist. When his accompanying artist didn’t show for one of his performances, the famous Paul Robeson asked Dr. Chinn to play piano for his show. For next four years she toured with Robeson as his pianist, all while completing her undergraduate degree in science.

 

She also began to see a pattern in which multiple members of the same family would develop cancer. This observation led her to begin asking patients for their family health history. Those who have had a relative with cancer were more likely to develop it themselves and, she concluded, should be paid close attention. Dr. Chinn was ahead of her time by insisting on recording family history and performing breast examinations on healthy patients—both of which have since become standard medical practice.

 

Her research helped create the Pap smear

Dr. Chinn’s methods for screening patients were helpful in many cases, but cancer is hard to detect reliably, even with the best of screening methods. Determined to help her patients, she began to do research on a potential method for detecting cervical cancer. In her studies, Dr. Chinn had become a skilled pathologist, which means she was able to identify abnormalities in cells by looking through a microscope. She put these skills to use by helping to show that cells found in vaginal fluid become abnormal when cervical cancer is developing. With this realization, a technique was developed wherein women could be screened simply for cervical cancer by a professional. This technique was named the Pap smear2-4.

Nowadays, Pap smears, breast examinations, and recording of family health history are all common methods used to identify people who may have cancer, or may be at risk of developing it. No screening method is perfect, but these practices do help.

Dr. Chinn continued to be an advocate for cancer screening and was an active physician well into her 80s, ultimately having practiced medicine for over 53 years by the time she retired. Put simply, Dr. May Edward Chinn was a resilient trailblazer whose work has helped advance our ability to detect—and thus treat—one of humankind’s most troublesome diseases.

 

1“Early History of Cancer.” American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/what-is-cancer.html.

2Davis, George. “A HEALING HAND IN HARLEM.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Apr. 1979, www.nytimes.com/1979/04/22/archives/a-healing-hand-in-harlem.html.

3“May Edward Chinn.” Emmy Noether: Creative Mathematical Genius, San Diego Supercomputer Center, www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/chinn.html.

4Chinn.”, “May Edward. “May Edward Chinn.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed, Encyclopedia.com, 2019, www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/may-edward-chinn.

5“Cancer Screening Tests | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/prevention/screening.htm.

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