Kenneth Melville Trailblazer

Medicine Focus | A man of many firsts | February 2016

by Philip Fine

Kenneth Melville, BSc’26, MDCM’26, MSc’31, (1902–1975) attained a level of success that many would have thought impossible for a Black man of his time and place.

​Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Melville, who came to Montreal in the early 1920s was one of the first Black medical students at McGill University. He graduated at the top of his class, earning the Holmes Gold Medal for his year, and, in 1930, won a postdoctoral fellowship at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris.

​Throughout his career, Melville contributed tremendously to his university, his community, and to science. He is remembered as the third Black professor in the history of McGill University, and in 1953 he became the second Black Chair of McGill’s Department of Pharmacology & Therapeutics. An internationally respected pharmacologist, he was among the first to show that adrenaline is not a sympathetic neurotransmitter. Over a period spanning almost half a century, Melville wrote more than 80 peer-reviewed scientific articles, primarily on the physiology of stress responses. He trained foreign graduate students, helped Nigeria develop its domestic medical program, and was a founding member of the International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology. The media also sought out his expertise on the dangers of certain recreational drugs.

Dr. Kenneth Melville also served as a mentor to students, a leader in Montreal’s West Indian community, and an advocate for civil rights. During the late ’30s, he became a founding member of the Fred Christie Defence Committee, set up to defend Mr. Christie, a Jamaican-born Black resident of Verdun, Quebec, who was refused service at a tavern in the Montreal Forum prior to a hockey game. Christie v York, as the case has come to be known, has become a landmark case in the fight for racial justice and human rights in Canada. In 1960, Dr. Melville was arrested with seven other physicians attending a medical congress in Atlantic City after the cafeteria refused to serve them because they were Black.

Although he worked primarily in research, Melville also ran a limited family practice. Chris Wright remembers his grandfather each Christmas going around to the homes of all his patients, most of them fellow immigrants from the West Indies. Two generations of physicians followed: Melville’s daughter, Enid Melville-Wright, BA, MDCM’59, who was a psychiatrist, and her son, Chris Wright, currently Chief Medical Officer at Pronutria Biosciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

​Melville’s memory lives on at McGill through the Melville Fellowship in Pharmacology, a prize awarded for the best poster presentations on Pharmacology Research Day.

With special thanks to Chris and Alexsandra Wright, to Joseph Hanaway, BA, MDCM’60, and to the Medicine Class of 1955 for inspiring this story. Last four photos courtesy of Alexsandra Wright.

Melville, pictured top left, in Cairo, with wife, Gladys, was a Freemason of the highest order. 

Melville, with wife, Gladys, in 1946, earned recognition from both Ebony and Jet magazines for his accomplishments.

Melville, with daughter, Enid in 1949. It has been suggested that Melville-Wright may have been the first black woman to graduate from McGill’s undergraduate medical program. She was one of only two women graduates for her year.

Melville, pictured here in the 1930s, served as Chair of Pharmacology & Therapeutics from 1953 to 1967. In 1972, he was named Professor Emeritus. 

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