Dr. James McCune Smith

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Portrait of James McCune Smith.

Dr. Smith earned his medical degree from the University of Scotland, Glasgow, and became the first African-American doctor in the United States.

Dr. Smith was born on April 18, 1813, in New York City. His mother was a self-emancipated former slave. His father was thought to be white or of mixed race. Smith was known as a bright student and attended the African Free School in New York. When no college in America would admit him as a student due to the racial climate of the time, Smith traveled to Europe to attend the University of Scotland, Glasgow.

Early on, he showed a commitment to and solidarity with slaves. While at the university, he joined the Glasgow Emancipation Society. He earned bachelor’s, master’s, and M.D. degrees from the University of Scotland, Glasgow, and received his medical degree in 1837. Smith did an internship in Paris before returning to New York.

His Medical Career

After he began his medical practice, he also opened a pharmacy on West Broadway. He is believed to be the first African-American to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States. Dr. Smith was an active member of the abolitionist movement to abolish slavery and helped demonstrate against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He also became friends with Frederick Douglass and worked with the abolitionist and orator, to form the National Council of the Colored People.

Smith Becomes an Author

In addition to Smith’s burgeoning medical practice, he was committed to fighting for causes in which he believed through his writings. Smith became the author of several published essays and wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass’ s book, My Bondage and My Freedom. Smith also gave lectures including one entitled, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” which he delivered in January 1841, before the Philomathean Society and Hamilton Lyceum.

One of his essays, On the Influence of Opium upon the Catamenial Functions, was also published in the New York Journal of Medicine. His other articles included: “Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade in the French and British Colonies;” “Citizenship” (which was a treatise on the Dred Scott decision in which Dred Scott, a slave, unsuccessfully attempted to sue in court for his freedom); and “On the Fourteenth Query of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia.”

Smith mainly practiced medicine and saw patients at New York’s Free Negro Orphan Asylum. He was the hospital’s only physician. Smith was later offered a position as professor of anthropology at Wilberforce University in 1863 but turned it down due to his failing health.

He was a member of Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church in New York. Smith, who was married and reportedly had five children with his wife, Malvina, died on November 17, 1865.