John A. Kenney Jr. Biography
Raised by Successful Parents, Followed in Father's Footsteps, Specialized in the Study of Skin
John A. "Jack" Kenney Jr. was a distinguished dermatologist and pioneer in the study of skin diseases afflicting non-white populations. One of the first black doctors trained in dermatology, he was a prominent member of the dermatology department at Howard University's medical school for more than 40 years. Kenney became an inspirational figure to several generations of black medical professionals. His obituary in the Washington Post estimated that Kenney mentored or trained about a third of the 300 black dermatologists currently practicing in the United States.
Raised by Successful Parents
John Andrew Kenney, Jr. was born on October 8, 1914 in Tuskegee, Alabama, the eldest of four children born to Dr. John A. Kenney, Sr. and Frieda Armstrong Kenney. His father was also an extremely important figure in black medicine, an advocate both for black patients and medical professionals. The author of the groundbreaking 1912 book, The Negro in Medicine, he served as medical director and chief surgeon at the general hospital at the Tuskegee Institute. Kenney's mother, one of the first black women to graduate from Boston University, also taught at the Institute.
Kenney's father joined the Tuskegee Institute staff at the personal invitation of Booker T. Washington, the Institute's founder, and was the personal physician to both Washington and agricultural scientist George Washington Carver who, according to Kenney's obituary in the Washington Post, took the Kenney children on Sunday nature walks.
The family was forced to leave Tuskegee in 1923 as a result of Dr. Kenney Sr.'s attempts to get black doctors hired at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital, an institution built to serve black veterans of World War I. When the Ku Klux Klan threatened his life and burned a cross on the family's lawn: the Kenney family fled within 24 hours, moving north to Montclair, New Jersey. There they encountered the same lack of medical services for black patients and professional opportunities for black medical professionals. Kenney's father founded the first hospital for blacks in nearby Newark. Kenney Memorial Hospital opened in 1927, and Kenney donated the small private hospital to the black community of New Jersey on Christmas Eve, 1934.
Followed in Father's Footsteps
After graduating from Montclair High School, Kenney attended Bates College, a college founded in 1855 by Maine abolitionists. Kenney earned a double major in chemistry and biology, and was also president of his class during his senior year, and a frequent contributor to the Garnet, the Bates College literary magazine. Illness meant he had to withdraw from college for a period, graduating in 1942 instead of with the class of 1938 as anticipated. At Bates he won the William F. Manuel Award for the graduate who made the most significant progress in biology.
In 1945, Kenney received his medical degree from Howard University, a private black university founded in 1867, where he was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha and Kappa Pi honor societies. From 1947 to 1952, while completing his professional training, Kenney served as assistant editor of the Journal of the National Medical Association. Kenney's father had co-founded the association of black physicians at the end of the nineteenth century.
His younger brother, Howard, graduated from Bates in 1940 and ultimately became the medical director of Tuskegee's John A. Andrew Hospital. Another brother, Oscar, was one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen pilots, the group of volunteers who became America's first black military airmen. He was killed on active duty in 1943.
Specialized in the Study of Skin
It was at the Cleveland City Hospital, where Kenney interned from 1948 to 1949, that he was urged to train as a dermatologist, according to his Bates College obituary. "At that time," he said, in a 1975 interview in Black Enterprise, "dermatology was considered a 'Society' specialty area, with only well-to-do whites going for treatments. When blacks sought service from a dermatologist, they were usually not treated well or not treated at all."
He continued his professional training in dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania and at the University of Michigan, where, according to African American Firsts in Science and Technology, he was the first black resident in dermatology. His Bates College obituary recalls that, at Michigan, Kenney often encountered problems acquiring sufficient samples of black skin for his experiments, and was forced to drive into Detroit to retrieve amputated limbs. Once he even resorted to using his own skin for research.
After working for five years on the faculty of Case Western Reserve University as an assistant clinical professor of dermatology, he returned to the faculty of medicine at Howard University in 1961. He was to remain part of the Howard University faculty for 40 years, chairing the dermatology department for almost half that time and overseeing the university's development into a major research center.
Founded Discipline of Ethnic Dermatology
When Kenney arrived at Howard, he discovered the department was extremely underfunded: it was a year before he got his own telephone line, according to the Bates College Web site. Kenney established the Department of Dermatology Postgraduate Training in 1963. Initially the program comprised two years of training, but by 1968 Kenney received approval for a fully accredited three-year residency program. When he began work at Howard, the department was still a division of internal medicine. By 1973, Kenney had managed to create a separate department of dermatology.
Kenney soon established a reputation as a leading researcher, publishing numerous academic articles on conditions such as vitiligo, a pigmentation disease that causes white blotches on skin, and establishing black dermatology as a medical specialty. "He was known nationally as a founder of the discipline known as ethnic dermatology, which is the study of skin diseases in nonwhite populations,'' said Dr. Rebat Halder, chairman of Howard's dermatology department, as quoted in the New York Times. "The manifestations, symptoms and treatments of many skin disorders are different in black populations, and his career was devoted to research and clinical efforts in those areas."
In recognition of his achievements, Kenney was offered prominent positions in a number of organizations, including the presidency of the National Medical Association from 1962 to 1963. Kenney was the first black member of the American Dermatology Association, to which he was admitted in 1970. From 1971 to 1973 he served as the first black board member of the American Academy of Dermatology. He was also a trustee of the Dermatology Foundation, president of the Washington Dermatology Association from 1969 to 1970, and president of the Social Hygiene Society of Metropolitan Washington from 1971 to 1972.
Advised Author of Soul Sister
In 1968, white journalist Grace Halsell approached Kenney for medical advice. Inspired by John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me, Halsell wanted to turn herself black with medication in order to experience life as a black person. Dr. Aaron Lerner at the Yale University Medical Center, referred her to John A. Kenney for advice. "It was one of my most unusual medical requests," he told Black Enterprise. In her book, Soul Sister, which describes her experiences living as a black woman in Mississippi and Harlem, Halsell recalled Kenney as "a fair-skinned Negro, intensely serious, with a kind expression in his eyes." He agreed to help her "both as your doctor and your friend," providing Halsell with emergency medical treatment on one occasion early in the experiment when she suffered severe burns to her feet.
When Halsell died in 2000, she left a gift of $800,000 gift to Howard University's School of Communications for scholarships to journalism students. Her estate's representative, Robert Norberg, told the university that Halsell never forgot Dr. Kenney's kind guidance when she was writing Soul Sister. He told HBCU News that the "association [with Kenney] was one of the major factors in her mind when she decided during the final year of her life to leave the bulk of her estate to Howard University."
Kenney received honorary degrees from Howard in 1987 and from Bates in 1988. He also maintained close ties with his first college, Bates, serving twenty-three years as a Bates Trustee and winning, in 2001, the Benjamin Elijah Mays Award for extraordinary contributions to society and the college. Jamie P. Merisotis, a Past President of Bates' Alumni Council, described Kenney as an "example of the Hippocratic Oath, the highest standards associated with being a role model, steadfast, a real teacher, authoritative yet compassionate." Kenney's colleagues and students, he said, used "a word seldom heard these days in describing an individual: 'noble.'"
Numerous honors distinguished Kenney's last years, including the Finnerwood Award of the Dermatology Foundation in 1988, of which he was the first black recipient. He became a director of the American Academy of Dermatology, which named him a master of dermatology, one of the highest honors in the field, in 1995 and awarded him its gold medal in 2001.
He continued to practice medicine until he was 85. A sought-after lecturer on international circuits, he also served as a consultant to the U.S. State Department and the Washington D.C. Department of Corrections, holding weekly clinics for 29 years. He died after heart failure at the age of 89 on November 29, 2003, at his home in Washington. His wife, Larcenia Ferne Wood, whom he married in 1943, died in 2000. John Kenney was survived by his two daughters, Frances Wood Kenney Moseley and Anne Kenney, and his son, John A. Kenney III. The numerous doctors and researchers he mentored remember him by the nickname—"the dean of black dermatology"—that suggests the stature he achieved in his profession.
(Editor, with William Montagna and Giuseppe Prota) Black Skin: Structure and Function, Academic Press, 1993.
"Vitiligo Treated by Psoralen: a Long-Term Follow-Up Study of the Permanency of Repigmentation," Archives of Dermatology, No. 103, 1971.
(With others) "Determination of Trimethylpsoralen in Blood, Ophthalmic Fluids, and Skin," Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Vol. 79, No. 6, December 1982.
"Black Dermatology," Cutis, 32, 1983.
(With P.E. Grimes) "Should Vitiligo Be Treated?" Cutis, 32, 1983.
"Experiences of a Black in Dermatology," Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 2, 1986.
"Pigmentary Disorders in Black Skin," Clinical Dermatology, Vol. 7, 1989.
Halsell, Grace, Soul Sister, World Publishing Company, 1969.
Webster, Raymond B., African American Firsts in Science and Technology, Gale Group, 1999.
Black Enterprise, February 1975, pp. 26-27.
Jet, January 5, 2004, p. 16.
New York Times, December 6, 2003, Sec. C, p. 16.
Washington Post, Sunday, December 7, 2003, Sec. C, p. 12.
"Bates Reunion 2001," Bates College, www.bates.edu/x13979.xml (October 23, 2004).
"The Benjamin Elijah Mays Award," Bates College, www.bates.edu/alumni-reunion-awards.xml (October 25, 2004).
"Department of Dermatology," Howard University, www.howard.edu/huh-gme/programs/Dermatology.htm (October 20, 2004).
"Howard Receives Journalism Bequest," HBCU News, www.facultyvoice.com/News/news2001/10-October/October%20829.html, (October 14, 2004).
"John A. Kenney, Jr.," Bates College, http://abacus.bates.edu/pubs/mag/96-Summer/kenney.html (October 8, 2004).
"Old Newark Hospitals, Homes and Orphanages," Old Newark, www.oldnewark.com/hospitals/kenney.htm (October 8, 2004).
"The Stories of Alumni Lives," Bates College, www.bates.edu/x57002.xml (October 25, 2004).
—Paula J.K. Morris
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