Marvelous Modern Woman Monday

May Edward Chinn

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Born April 15, 1896, to the daughter of a former slave Mary (May) had doors opened to her that few women, let alone “working class” black women had in the early 1900s.

May became a marvelous modern woman not letting racist institutions stop her from achieving her goals. By the time of her death in 1980 she had joined the Society of Surgical Oncology, and a society to promote African American women to attend medical school.

Photo Credit: Dr Chinn treating a patient in Harlem Hospital in 1928 // New York Post

Early Life

Her mother, Lula Ann Evans, a descendant of the Chickahominy people, worked as a housekeeper on the estate of Charles L. Tiffany. Yes, that Tiffany.

Her mother’s salary sent May to Bordentown Manual and Training Industrial School, a boarding school in New Jersey. Unfortunately, a bout with osteomyelitis in her jaw forced May to return to New York where she lived with the white Tiffany family while she recovered from surgery.

It was in their home that she was exposed to classical music and taught German and French. Classical music would be her first passion.

After the death of Charles Tiffany, Chinn and her mother returned to New York City where she resumed her education at a public school and took piano lessons.

The Path to Trailblazer

Despite not graduating high school May took the entrance examination to Columbia Teachers College, graduating in 1921. She initially studied classic music but changed her major to science after interacting with a racist music professor and getting praise for a scientific paper.

That aptitude was recognized by Jean Broadhurts, her bacteriology professor at the college. By her senior year of undergraduate, Chinn worked in a clinical pathology lab as a laboratory technician.

Medical Career

She went on study medicine at Bellevue Hospital Medical College, becoming its first African American woman graduate in 1926. She would still encounter racism in the medical field.

Photo Credit: Chinn’s Bellevue Hospital Medical College graduation portrait // 1926 // “New York Times”

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Alexandra Henning The Hysterical Historian

I write about politics, science, among other topics as the mood strikes through a historical lense.