Black History Month: Guyanese-born Surgeon and Team Saved MLK’s Life After 1958 Harlem Stabbing

Plaque dedicating THE AUBREY MAYNARD CARDIAC OPERATING SUITE at Harlem Hospital. (Photo by C. Aklu)

By Chaitram Aklu

Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple in Memphis Tennessee. The following day, April 4, 1968 he was assassinated by James Earl Wray as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

But his role and achievements in the Civil Rights Movement may have been a lot shorter and less impactful, had it not been for a great team of surgeons and staff that saved his life 10 years earlier in New York City’s Harlem.

King, Leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) who had gone to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers made reference to the September 20, 1958 attack on his life while on a book tour and autographing copies of his first book at the Blumstein’s Department Store on 125th Street.

While signing, a mentally deranged black woman named Izola Ware Curry approached him and after asking if he was Martin Luther King, stabbed in the chest with a 7inch letter opener. The blade was lodged in his sternum just millimeters away from his Aorta. King forgave his attacker and requested that she be treated for her illness. She spent the rest of her life in a mental institution.

As King told it in his speech “I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of the aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you are drowned in your blood—that is the end of you.” The doctors told him that if he had only sneezed he would have died.

“I want to say to you tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960 — in 1961—-in 1962 —- in 1963 —-. I am so happy I didn’t sneeze. — I just want to do God’s will,” King told his audience.

At the hospital, saving Dr. King’s life fell into the hands of a surgical team led by the chief surgeon, Guyanese born Dr. Aubre de Lambert Maynard, and included Master Surgeon Dr. W. V. Cordice Jr. (African American) and Dr. Emil Naclerio (Italian American).  They used a procedure developed by Dr. Maynard “a world authority on the surgery of heart wounds, thoracic and abdominal, and the surgery of the esophagus” to remove the letter opener and saved Dr. King’s life.

In a statement on September 30, 1958 expressing his appreciation to the team for successfully performing the surgery that saved his life Dr. King wrote: “To Dr. Aubre Maynard and his associates and the splendid hospital staff, I am unable to say enough in expressing my appreciation.”

Dr. Maynard was born in Guyana on November 17, 1901 and migrated with his family to the United States in 1906 at age 6. His first interest was engineering but was told that it would be extremely difficult to surmount the racial obstacles he was would encounter in that profession at the time.

He decided on medicine instead. Yet, although top in academic requirements, he was “counseled away” from the prestigious Ivy League Columbia University. He was told that white patients would not be comfortable being treated by a black doctor. He enrolled at New York University instead and graduated in 1926 and interned at Harlem Hospital which in the early 1920s was known as a place where people go to die. According to a book written by Dr. Maynard 75% of the patients there were blacks, most of whom were arriving from the American South in what is known as the Great Migration, and migrants from the Caribbean.

Dr. Maynard worked to change Harlem Hospital’s reputation and in the process rose to the position of Surgeon-in-Chief and Director of Surgery (1952- 1967). He was appointed Special Lecturer and Clinical Professor of Surgery at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons from 1962 -1967, the same Ivy League college from which he was “counseled away.” He authored numerous articles and a book, Surgeons to the Poor: The Harlem Hospital Story (1978) and was named Surgeon Specialist in the U. S. Department of State in 1964. The surgical Unit at Harlem’s Hospital today bears his name. He remained emeritus Director of Surgery from 1972 until his death in 1999.