Today we visit Dr. James McCune Smith.

James McCune Smith 1813-1865

James McCune Smith 1813-1865

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James McCune Smith, born in 1813, was a graduate of the New York African Free School. It is clear, from the fragments of his schoolwork that survive, that Smith was an exceptionally bright student. Smith was chosen to deliver a speech to General Lafayette on his trip to New York, a great honor. From other samples of his work, we can glean his prodigious talent in both writing and drawing. Perhaps it was his undeniable status as a star student that inspired Charles C. Andrews, the school’s white schoolmaster, to cast him in a dialogue performed in 1822. In this skit, Smith plays a good student who reprimands his classmate for persistent tardiness. When Smith learns that his friend’s lateness is due to the negligence of his parents, he is indignant and extols the virtues of education and the rules that undergird that education at the New York African Free School. Although we do not know how this skit was received, we might imagine that parents in the audience might have found the exchange offensive.

After his graduation, James McCune Smith became the first African American to receive a medical degree. Unable to attend college in the United States because he was black, Smith entered Glasgow University in Scotland and earned three academic degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. When Smith returned to New York, his intellect and energy made him an instrumental figure in an emerging black community. A prominent abolitionist, Smith worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of the Colored People. He also maintained close ties to classmate Henry Highland Garnet, praising his incendiary speech urging slaves to rebel, even when other members of the abolitionist community objected strongly to Garnet’s sentiments.

Some of Smith’s published works include “A Lecture on the Haitian Revolution” (1841) and “The Destiny of the People of Color” (1843), as well as a biographical introduction to Henry Highland Garnet’s A Memorial Discourse. He also wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom. James McCune Smith died on November 17, 1865.

Additional Information from the University of Glasgow:


James McCune Smith graduated from the University BA in 1835, MA in 1836, and MD in 1837, making him the first African American to receive a university medical degree.

Born a slave in 1813 in New York City, but liberated by the New York State’s Emancipation Act of 1827, Smith was denied admission to Universities in the US on account of his race despite being acknowledged as a student of great potential. Accepted by the University of Glasgow, Smith’s studies were funded in part by the Glasgow Emancipation Society, of which he became an active member. Influenced by the legacies of Scottish Enlightenment thought, Smith returned to New York in 1837.

Dr Smith opened his own practice and pharmacy, noted to be the first African American owned and operated pharmacy in America, where he treated both black and white patients. Smith would eventually become the proprietor of two pharmacies and would continue to practice medicine for 25 years.

Not only a successful physician, Smith became a great abolitionist and educator, and has been recognised as the foremost black i intellectual in nineteenth-century America.

Dr Smith died of heart disease in 1865.

Additional Information:


James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn a medical degree and practice medicine in the United States. He was also the first to own and operate a pharmacy, in New York City. Smith was born on April 18, 1813 in New York City to parents who were former slaves. New York’s Emancipation Act freed his father and his mother worked her way out of bondage. Smith began his education at the African Free School in New York City, but soon found he could go no further in U.S. education due to racial discrimination.

So Smith crossed the Atlantic and studied instead at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, where racial prejudice was less oppressive. There, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1835, a master’s degree in 1836, and his medical degree in 1837.

When he returned to the United States, Smith received a hero’s welcome from New York’s black community. He told the gathering, “I have striven to obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply such education to the good of our common country.” Soon after that, he gave a speech at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, where he described abolitionist activities in Europe.

He began a medical practice in New York and opened a pharmacy on West Broadway. It is said to be the first African American owned and operated pharmacy in the United States.

Dr. Smith practiced medicine for 25 years, primarily at the Free Negro Orphan Asylum. He frequently gave speeches against slavery, and wrote essays for antislavery publications, including the Emancipator and the Liberator. Smith used science and his knowledge of medicine to refute false claims of slavery advocates. In one essay, he marshaled statistics against a minister’s claim that slaves in the South were more content than free blacks in the North. In another, he applied his medical knowledge to counter assertions about black health and insanity.

Smith wrote an introduction for Fredrick Douglass’ second autobiographical volume,My Bondage and My Freedom. There, he wrote that Douglass’ life story “shows that the worst of our institutions, in its worst aspect, cannot keep down energy, truthfulness, and earnest struggle for the right.”

In 1863, Smith was appointed professor of anthropology at Wilberforce University, in Ohio. He died two years later in New York, survived by his wife and five children.

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