Trailblazing Black Dermatologists Paved Way for Research, Contemporaries

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Lynn McKinley-Grant, MD, describes how precedents were set in the treatment of skin of color by greats John Kenney Jr., MD, and Susan Taylor, MD.

As with most fields of study in the United States, “firsts” for Black dermatologists came much later than they should have because of the systemic racism inherent in our country. Nonetheless, pioneers in the treatment of skin of color, such as John Kenney Jr., MD, and Susan Taylor, MD, and a handful of others persevered with the great strides that the field desperately needed.

One of the current trailblazers in dermatology, Lynn McKinley-Grant, MD, may be considered a descendant of these greats, a term she says is used in the field to refer to certain mentees, as she had the pleasure of working with both Dr Kenney and Dr Taylor. Dr. McKinley-Grant is an author, researcher and lecturer, who teaches at Howard and Duke Universities. She has worked extensively with rare skin diseases, such as Stevens-Johnson syndrome, and she identified the skin protein filaggrin, the lack of which can cause ichthyosis vulgaris.

A Family of Forerunners

“Dr Kenney’s father founded the National Medical Association (NMA), which was a group of physicians who weren’t allowed to be in the American Medical Association (AMA),” said Dr McKinley-Grant. “They had lived in Tuskegee and had crosses burned in their yard,” so moved to Montclair, NJ in 1923. Dr Kenney, Jr. then graduated from Bates College in 1942, and at Howard University he studied medicine and dermatology.

Dr McKinley-Grant said that since there was so little research on skin of color at the time Dr Kenney began to practice, disorders were always measured against their manifestations in White skin. This standard needed to change so that skin of color would be recognized as having distinct characteristics that required specialized treatment, and Dr Kenney took on that challenge.

“A lot of his [research] was in vitiligo, a disease in which people lose pigment,” Dr. McKinley-Grant explained. “It occurs in all races, but when you have the contrast of the dark and the light skin, it’s very prominent in African Americans or people with darker skin types.”

It is estimated that, by his death in 2003, Dr Kenney — who is referred to as the “dean of Black dermatology” and is one of few Masters of Dermatology — had trained at least a third of the Black dermatologists who were practicing at the time. Dr McKinley-Grant underscored the influence Dr Kenney had in medicine as a whole, not just in dermatology, due to both his brilliance and a commitment to passing on knowledge to doctors who would continue his legacy.

“He trained so many physicians, not only dermatologists and not only Black doctors, but White doctors,” Dr McKinley-Grant said. Eventually, Dr Kenney accepted a position at Howard University where he trained physicians who also entered academia and therefore trained more physicians.

Lack of Resources, Research

Dr McKinley-Grant noted that, after the formation of the NMA, Black practitioners had community and collaboration, but they lacked the resources and backing they needed to make progress in the field of research for skin of color.

“Generally, they treated Black patients, so they really knew the skin; they knew each organ that they had to deal with,” she said. “They did a lot, but there wasn’t anyone that could get the research done and get it recognized in the White world.”

Under Dr Kenney’s direction, the dermatology department of Howard University’s College of Medicine became a major research center, where he encouraged others to begin research endeavors as well. His work became affiliated with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and he worked with physicians across the country to make advances in the field of dermatology specific to patients with skin of color. Notably, in 1970 he became the first Black member of the American Academy of Dermatology, which named him a Master of Dermatology in 1995.

“We had the clinical, but the research part was missing, and so Dr Kenney really created research opportunities,” Dr McKinley-Grant said.

Mentees Become Mentors

Dr McKinley-Grant cofounded an educational nonprofit, the Insight Institute, and is currently the president of the Skin of Color Society, which has 900 members globally. Thus, she also works closely with Susan Taylor, MD, FAAD, the dermatology pioneer who founded the organization in 2004.

While affiliated with Columbia University Medical Center, Dr Taylor developed “the first true Skin of Color Center” [outside of an HBCU]” said Dr McKinley-Grant. Dr Taylor also established the Skin of Color Society, which is focused on education, research, mentoring, and skin of color.

Dr McKinley Grant said that, like Dr Kenney, Dr Taylor has done extensive mentoring and currently has mentees all over the world. Moreover, because of the adversity that people of color routinely face in medicine, Dr Taylor’s commitment to paving the way for others is all the more significant. 

“It was never easy to get those things done. There were lots of obstacles in the way, like not getting recognized, or not even getting accepted into programs,” McKinley-Grant explained. “It was that way with a lot of us: [we were] the first at the university or the first in the dermatology programs. But the tradition has been that you mentor people, and then they mentor more, and then we get more work done.”