African American Medical Pioneers: James McCune Smith (1813-1865)
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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