By Chaitram Aklu
He joined the staff of Harlem Hospital Center (HHC), in New York City – one of the first blacks to be hired as an intern by that hospital. That was in 1926. He rose to the rank of surgeon-in-chief and director-of-surgery at that institution, was special lecturer and clinical professor of surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and along the way, he and his team saved the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when the Civil Rights leader nearly died from a stab wound at his book signing event in Manhattan. He was a trailblazer that led the way for many other blacks and minorities in the United States to follow.
This “world authority on the surgery of heart wounds, thoracic and abdominal trauma, and the surgery of the esophagus”, was Aubré de Lambert Maynard an immigrant from Guyana (British Guiana until 1966) who came to the US at the age of five when his family migrated in the fall of 1906. He was born in Georgetown on November 17, 1901. On arrival, he immediately began to suffer “repeated respiratory infections” so his father sent him to Barbados where he received his elementary education. On his return his father inculcated in him that “the black man would always be under challenge of harder work and superior performance in order to make the grade.” Maynard wrote, “It bolstered me, kept me clear–eyed and ever vigilant during my academic life and thereafter.”
Young Maynard was admitted to Townsend Harris Hall, which was the preparatory secondary school for the College of the City of New York (CCNY). After graduating in 1922 from CCNY, with a double major in Mathematics and Physics, his intention was to go into the field of engineering. However, when advised that as a black person, he would have no prospect in engineering, he then decided to pursue a medical career.
He did not escape the color problem. His first choice was Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. But at registration the Associate Dean pointed out that “It was only prudent to convey to me certain realities that would materialize —–in such matters, as my contact with patients, i.e., white patients.” In other words being black would be a problem. He enrolled in New York University Medical School. When he graduated with his medical degree in 1926, he encountered “the same racial obstacles at public and voluntary hospitals in the city and around the country.” He placed first in the annual internship examination at HHC and became one of the first black interns to be hired there.
Dr. Maynard was supervised and mentored by the renowned Dr. Louis T. Wright at HHC, the first African American physician appointed to that institution in 1919. Wright was also executive Director of the NAACP. That same year several white physicians resigned from the hospital in protest of the hiring of blacks. Maynard was staff surgeon from 1928 to 1952. He replaced Dr. Wright as director of surgery in 1952 and held that position until 1967 when he retired.
Change was inevitable. The Great Migration of blacks from the South had begun during WW1. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution granted former slaves full freedom as citizens, the right to vote, and equal protection under the law. However life was difficult as the Southern states began enacting Jim Crow laws to keep blacks under white control and on the plantations. The respected painter and writer Jacob Lawrence wrote “My family left the South on a quest for freedom, justice, and dignity.” — “Their movement resulted in one of the largest population shifts in the history of the United States.” In the Northern cities (Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburg, New York and other cities), there were jobs in factories, their children could go to school, and they could vote. Some five million migrated.
In the 1920s Harlem had become a center for American migrants and Caribbean migrants. Maynard wrote that blacks accounted for seventy- five percent of Harlem Hospital’s patients in 1920 but in 1919 the staff was one hundred percent white. Further “The hospital was becoming known as a place ‘to go and die,’ a reputation seriously affecting the psyche of a community unable to do without its ministrations. The situation had to be corrected.”
By 1930 however, HHC was one of the few hospitals in the entire country with a racially integrated staff at all levels. Then an incident occurred and HHC drew national and international attention as a hospital.
On September 20, 1958, while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was signing his first book, Strides Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story at the Blumstein’s Department Store at 230 West 125th Street, a deranged black woman Izola Ware Curry, stabbed King in the chest with a seven inch letter opener. In an interview King recalled that Curry approached him and asked if he was Dr. Martin Luther King and when he answered “yes” she stabbed him. The blade lodged in his sternum just millimeters away from his aorta. He was rushed to Harlem Hospital where Dr. Maynard’s team made up of master surgeons Dr. W.V. Codice Jr. (African American) and Dr. Emil Naclerio (Italian American) “using the thoracic surgical procedure developed by Dr. Maynard”, performed the surgery that saved King’s life. Dr. King issued the following statement on September 30, 1958, “To Dr. Aubre Maynard and his associates and the splendid hospital staff, I am unable to say enough in expressing my gratitude.” King would reference his near death experience in his last speech “I’ve been To The Mountain Top”, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis. The following day he was assassinated by James Earl Wray.
Dr. W.V. Cordice Jr. died in 2013. Dr. Emil Naclerio died in 1985. And Dr. Aubre Maynard died in 1999. (Izola Ware Curry, who was committed to a mental hospital died in 2015). Fifty four years after King’s stabbing and thirteen years after Maynard’s death, Douglas Martin in a January 2014 NYT article, referred to a 2012 interview in which, Dr. Cordice disputed Dr. Maynard’s involvement in the actual surgery. However, it was Dr. Maynard who removed the blade from Dr. King’s chest. Dr. John Palmer, Executive Director of HHC wrote in The Positive Community (Winter 2009-10), “Dr Aubre de Lambert Maynard headed up the medical team who was credited with saving Dr. King’s life.”
During his tenure Dr. Maynard made significant contributions to HHC in particular and to the quality of patient care in general. He authored many articles and chapters in books. The Division of Thoracic Surgery which bears his name was established in 1972 and follows surgical procedures developed by Dr. Maynard for lung, esophagus and cardiovascular conditions. He was elected President of Harlem Surgical Society in 1951. His book, Surgeons to the Poor: The Harlem Hospital Story was published in 1978.
Dr. Maynard who was ‘counseled away’ from the prestigious Columbia University, because of his color, was later appointed special lecturer and clinical professor of surgery at the very University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons,(1962-1967) and he remained emeritus director of surgery at HHC after he retired in 1967 and until his death. He was Surgeon Specialist in the US Department of State in 1964. At his inauguration on January 20, 1961 President John F. Kennedy exhorted the nation with his challenge: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” Maynard served his country well.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.