In their essay, Millon and Mesgun pointed out the remarkable drive it took for James McCune Smith to become a physician: “Smith was born in New York in 1817 to a woman who was formerly a slave. He excelled academically in his childhood which led him to apply to both Columbia University and Geneva Medical College. He was denied from both on the grounds of racial discrimination. Smith instead attended the University of Glasgow in Scotland. When he returned to New York, he was...the first African American to hold a medical degree. Smith provided medical care for both African American and white patients. He opened a night school for teaching children as well as the first black-owned and operated pharmacy in the U.S.”
At the history month gathering was UNLV Medicine’s Dr. Charles St. Hill, one of only three fellowship trained surgical oncologists in Nevada. In 2018 a
Las Vegas Review Journal story
told of how his surgical prowess saved the life of a cancer patient. As Black History Month unfolds, he hopes his story inspires other minority youths to go into medicine.”That’s why Black History Month remains important,” he said. “If the history revealed in this month can inspire others to go into fields they might not otherwise attempt, it’s worthwhile.”
UNLV School of Medicine students don’t have to read histories to learn a lot about Black contributions to medicine in Nevada. Dr Joseph Thornton, an associate professor at the medical school, was not just the first black fellowship trained colorectal surgeon to practice in Nevada, he was the first fellowship trained colorectal surgeon to practice in Nevada period. Dr. Beverly Neyland, a professor of pediatrics, was the first black pediatrician in the state. Both graduated from Nashville’s Meharry Medical College, the first medical school for African Americans in the South. As they shared part of their histories with the students, it was obvious that it was an enjoyable teaching moment. “It keeps me young,” laughed Thornton. I feel like I’m in my 40s.”
Thornton, who arrived in Nevada shortly after Neyland in 1978, when he says only six Black physicians practiced in Nevada, remembers an occasion when he visited with Dr. Charles West, the state’s first black physician, about a matter outside of medicine: “When Black entertainers here weren’t able to stay in the hotels, Dr. West found them a place to stay,” Thornton said.
To date, Thornton estimates he’s done 10,000 colon resections, where surgery is performed to treat and prevent diseases and conditions that affect the colon, such as colon cancer.
Neyland has not only been in private practice, she’s also been chief of pediatrics at both Sunrise and UMC, a member of the admissions committee at the University of Nevada Reno Medical School and a member of the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners. She said all too often the contributions of African Americans don’t receive the credit they deserve. “We’ve been marginalized,” she said. Neyland added she enjoys going to high schools and churches to talk to young people about careers in medicine. “We need to be better at mentoring.”
It’s clear UNLV School of Medicine students won’t let what Thornton and Neyland have learned during their nearly 50-year careers -- their Black history, their American history -- go to waste.
“We value their advice on how to avoid some of the pitfalls and hardships they faced during their early careers, especially as it pertains to being Black,” wrote Millon and Mesgun. “ We look up to them to learn ways we can continue to encourage Black youth to aspire to become doctors and other healthcare professionals.”