Dr. James McCune Smith

First Among Men

James McCune Smith was the first university-trained black physician to practice medicine in the US. He was born in 1813 to Lavinia Smith, who was born a slave in Charleston, South Carolina but relocated to New York City before the birth of her son James. It is unclear whether Dr. Smith’s father was a slave-owner, but from his writings, it is widely believed that he did not know his father and was indeed raised by his mother alone.

Although James McCune was born a slave, he gained his freedom after the Emancipation Act of the State of New York was enacted on July 4, 1827. Although New York had passed gradual abolition laws in 1799, which designated that children of slave mothers were born free, children of slaves still had to serve as bondsmen until early adulthood. The Emancipation Act freed any remaining slaves in the state, unfortunately too late for some, as many slaves were sold to southern slave-owners illegally to avoid compliance with the 1799 abolition laws.

Although James McCune was born a slave, he gained his freedom after the Emancipation Act of the State of New York was enacted on July 4, 1827.

Smith attended the African Free School in Manhattan and was reported quite bright. He was placed in the apprenticeship of a blacksmith but was eager to study medicine. He applied to Columbia University and Geneva Medical College in New York State, but was denied admission due to racial discrimination. Upon the urging of one of his mentors, Smith went over seas, and studied at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, achieving a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a medical degree during his 5 years of study. His medical degree was granted in 1837, and he went on to complete an intership in Paris.

After returning to the US, Smith began a medical practice in New York. He also opened a pharmacy on West Broadway that is believed to be the first black-owned and operated pharmacy in the US. He served both blacks and whites in his pharmacy. In addition to practicing medicine for over 20 years at the Colored Orphan Asylum in Manhattan (see amazing photos of the Asylum), Smith was a well-regarded intellectual. He wrote many articles and essays and is perhaps best known for writing an introduction for Fredrick Douglass' second autobiographical work, My Bondage and My Freedom.

Dr. Smith used his training in medicine to dispel common misconceptions about race, intelligence, and society in general. In 1843, he gave a lecture series, Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Races, to refute the so-called scientific practice of phrenology, which was used to support racist conclusions and propagate the notion of inequality. Not only did he use intellect, but Smith was an activist. He was one of the Committee of Thirteen – a group of black abolitionists who protested the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and racial prejudice in. A primary activity of this group was to protect New York City blacks from slave catchers. From the 1840s, he lectured on race and abolitionism and wrote numerous articles to refute racist ideas about black capacities.

Dr. Smith used his training in medicine to dispel common misconceptions about race, intelligence, and society in general.

At Glasgow, Smith had been trained in statistics, which was then an emerging science. He published numerous articles applying his statistical training and even used statistics to refute the arguments of slave owners, who wrote that blacks were inferior and better off as slaves then free men. In 1852, he was invited as a founding member of the New York Statistics Society, whose goal was to promote the new science of statistics. Although welcomed into the Statistics Society, Dr. Smith was not admitted to the American Medical Association because of racial discrimination.

He died at age 52 of congestive heart failure.

Hi, I'm Dr. Karen!

For years, I have been obsessed with understanding why some communities are more greatly impacted by disease than others. So as a medical/graduate student, I decided that I wanted to make sure that everyone had equal access to healthcare and we would no longer have underserved populations in the U.S.

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