James McCune Smith, a history-making black physician who helped end slavery

Mohammed Awal May 09, 2020
Dr. James McCune Smith/ Public Domain Image

James McCune Smith was a medical doctor who paved the way for African Americans. Smith graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1837 and became the first African American to receive a medical degree.

Born in slavery in 1813 in New York City, Smith attended the New York African Free-School. Upon graduation, he applied for admission to several American colleges but was denied on grounds of racism.

However, the University of Glasgow, Scotland, came around, providing Smith an academic lifeline. Enlisted into the university without prejudice, Smith flourished in his studies and went on to become the first African American to receive a medical degree.

Naturally gifted academically, Smith proved to be an outstanding student during his studies in Glasgow, obtaining three degrees – a bachelor’s degree in 1835, a master’s degree in 1836, and his medical doctorate in 1837.

“McCune Smith was born in 1813 in New York city a slave, his mother had been a slave in South Carolina, but he is freed on July 4, 1827, when New York freed all the enslaved people in the state. He is already attending school at that point and is clearly a brilliant pupil, so he applies for medical school several years later at Columbia and other American universities, but he is rejected by them all,” Professor Simon Newman, historian and lead academic on ‘The Runaway Slaves Project’ at the University of Glasgow, said in a 2017 article titled 180th anniversary for former slave James McCune Smith.

“However, he is accepted by the University of Glasgow, which ironically is a far better medical school than any of the American ones he had applied to, and the free black community in New York mobilizes and raises the money to send him because they think he is one of the best and the brightest,” Newman added.

Smith’s pioneering feat came in an era when few Americans attended university, and fewer still bothered to finish their degrees and graduate, a biography of him stated. Fluent in French, Greek, and Latin as well as a working knowledge of Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and German, Smith was said to be one of the best-educated Americans of his time, a publication of him said.

Smith moved to France for his clinical training and after his education in Glasgow, he went to the United States to set up a medical practice in lower Manhattan. 

Smith was also a prolific writer and famously known to be an abolitionist working side by side with renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He was chosen as the only doctor to service the Colored Orphan Asylum – which before then was dependent strictly on volunteer services. Smith opened up the first pharmacy run by an African American.

Douglass later said that after Smith “breathe the free air of Scotland”, he changed and “began to envisage a world completely different from the one he grew up in, there could be an equality of the races.”

Upon all of the accolades and milestones he earned, Smith was never allowed to become a member of the American Medical Association or any other medical organization due to racial prejudice. Towards the end of his life, Smith was instituted as a professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College – the initial African-American owned and operated collegial institution in the U.S.

“His greatest influence was to show that black men and women were not simply defined by slavery and abolitionism,” Professor Newman said. “This was an age when probably the best know doctor Josiah Nott, who was McCune Smith’s contemporary, was a racist slaveholder who believed that slavery was right, that it was justified by God and was proved by biology.

“To have someone like McCune Smith as a doctor in New York City, who was publishing a lot more than Josiah Nott, who was probably a much more educated and intelligent man, was an example in itself that could not be emulated by most African Americans. Only his Glasgow education allowed him to do this.”

Smith collaborated with Harvard-educated physician and statistician Edward Jarvis and pioneered the use of medically based statistics to refute notions of African-American inferiority, and exposed scientific flaws in the racially biased U.S. Census of 1840Physiology.org stated in an article themed First African-American to hold a medical degree: a brief history of James McCune Smith, abolitionist, educator, and physician.

Along with Douglass, Gerrit Smith, John Brown, and other intellectual pioneers of the time, Smith was said to be instrumental in making the elimination of slavery possible. 

A strong abolitionist, Smith also edited several black abolitionist newspapers, including TheColored American and TheAnglo-African Magazine, and was the New York correspondent for Frederick Douglass’ Papers. 

Smith died from heart failure on November 17, 1865, and was survived by his wife and five of 11 children.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: May 8, 2020


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