By Samantha Puckorius | Published on February 23, 2023
This Black History Month, the Prevent Cancer Foundation is honoring four pioneers in prevention—Black oncologists who persevered against racial barriers and revolutionized cancer prevention and early detection—whose names and legacies ought to be better known. These four individuals represent just a glimpse of the impact that Black people have had on medicine and thus society at large:
Dr. May Edward Chinn
A pioneer in the field of cancer early detection, Dr. May Edward Chinn dedicated herself to saving lives and helping the Harlem community. Most notably, Dr. Chinn helped to develop the Pap smear to test for cervical cancer in the early 1930s, an innovation that has saved an immeasurable number of lives and forever changed how we prevent and detect cervical cancer. Dr. Chinn was the first Black woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College (now known as New York University School of Medicine) and the first Black woman to intern at Harlem Hospital. Regardless of her skills and achievements, she was denied admitting privileges because of her race and thus opened her own practice in Harlem in 1928.
Even as Harlem changed as a result of the Great Depression, redlining and disinvestment, Dr. Chinn remained committed to caring for the people in her community. In 1944, she was invited to join the Strang Cancer Clinic at Memorial Hospital, where she developed screening methods and protocols still used to this day, such as screenings for non-symptomatic patients, new methods of physical examination in screening and the use of a patient’s personal and family medical histories to determine cancer risk.
Though faced with unjust barriers, Dr. Chinn’s compassion, resourcefulness, and intelligence helped her overcome some of the racial barriers she faced and changed the course of cancer forever—creating better outcomes for all.
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright, the “Mother of Chemotherapy,” developed some of the most important cancer treatments ever used. Along with being an accomplished surgeon, she also helped to establish medical oncology as we know it today and to make chemotherapy more accessible and reliable.
In 1951, Dr. Wright was the first to discover that methotrexate (now a foundational chemotherapy drug) was effective against cancerous tumors. Along with determining which chemotherapy drugs were successful, she was the first to discover the importance of the order in which they were administered. She also pioneered using human tissue (cells taken from tumors) to test the efficacy of various cancer drugs.
In 1964, Dr. Wright co-founded the American Society for Clinical Oncology, establishing a community of scientists to improve care for cancer patients. That same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke. In response to the commission’s report, a national network of cancer treatment centers was established.
Dr. Wright was a visionary and a pioneer: she was the first Black woman to be associate dean of a medical school (in 1967) and the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society (in 1971). Her work forever transformed how we treat cancer, saving millions of lives.
Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr.
Born and raised in segregated Florida, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. faced and overcame racial barriers from a young age. At only 18 years old, he graduated from college and began medical school at Howard University. Dr. Leffall became an assistant professor at Howard University Medical School in 1962. Only eight years later, he was named chairman of the Department of Surgery at Howard.
In 1978, Dr. Leffall became the first Black president of the American Cancer Society (ACS). As president, he introduced programs and conferences focused on cancer health disparities experienced by Black people. Dr. Leffall used his position to advocate for the Black community, influencing policy decisions and funding for cancer research and treatment.
Dr. Leffall was a man of many firsts. Along with being the first Black president of ACS, he was also the first Black president of the American College of Surgeons and one of only five surgeons to serve as president of both. Dr. Leffall embodied the ethos of “lifting as we climb.” He was committed to helping Black people excel in medicine, saying, “You don’t mind being the first, but you don’t want to be the only.”
Dr. Leffall devoted his career to addressing cancer health disparities in the Black community and cared deeply for his patients and students. He was a faculty member at Howard University for more than 60 years, taught thousands of medical students and hundreds of surgical residents, and took great pride in teaching and mentoring young minds. Dr. Leffall’s work changed cancer prevention and care, establishing the importance of studying and eliminating cancer health disparities along racial lines.
Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick
At 16 years old, Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick came to the United States from Trinidad to attend Howard University for his bachelors and medical degrees. During his surgical residency at Howard University Hospital, Dr. Frederick was mentored by renowned surgical oncologist Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr.
Dr. Frederick’s medical research focuses on closing racial, ethnic and gender disparities in cancer-care outcomes. He also specializes in gastrointestinal cancers, such as colorectal cancer, which affects Black men at a disproportionately higher rate. In 2006, Dr. Frederick joined Howard faculty as Associate Dean in the College of Medicine, Chief in the Department of Surgery, and Director of the Cancer Center (among other roles).
In 2014, Dr. Frederick was named the 17th president of Howard University. Howard is a historically Black university that has educated and transformed the lives of Black people for generations. The same year he became president of Howard, Dr. Frederick was recognized by Congress for his remarkable work on health disparities. Still president of Howard today, Dr. Frederick continues to regularly practice medicine and perform surgeries. He highly values hands-on teaching and mentorship, feeling a “moral obligation to pass on that skill set to the next generation.” Dr. Frederick is also an advocate for better access, opportunity and treatment for people of color in health care.
Black history is not an abstract concept, separate from our lives; it is made daily in our communities everywhere. The achievements of Drs. May Edward Chinn, Jane Cooke Wright, LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., Wayne A. I. Frederick and other Black pioneers in prevention like them have saved and continue to save countless lives, building a world where cancer is increasingly preventable, detectable
, and beatable for all. To see all the profiles featured this month, visit our Instagram page.