A Pioneer in Medicine

James McCune Smith was born a slave in Manhattan in 1813 to a mother who was from South Carolina and a white father who owned his mother. His father was never in his life. He was a very bright student but was denied admission to college. James’ mentor suggested he go to the University of Glasgow in Scotland and paid for his education. James completed bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degrees at the University of Glasgow.

After graduating as a medical doctor, Dr. Smith stayed in Scotland for his residency. During this time, he became the first African American to publish papers in a scientific journal. He then decided to return to the U.S. and became the first university-trained African American doctor in America.

He established a practice where he treated patients of all races and created the first pharmacy owned by an African American. He also started a school. He became the only physician appointed to treat orphans at a hospital created by Quaker philanthropists.

In addition to his medical services, James was also an avowed abolitionist. He became a colleague of Frederick Douglas who called Dr. Smith “the single most important influence of his life”. Together they formed the National Council of Colored People. They fought for, and ended, some segregation practices in New York. Their work became the model for the NAACP.

Dr. Smith was a prolific writer in both medical fields and also in matters of race. He was especially effective in debunking what would later be called eugenics. He refuted racially tainted arrangements of some of the most prominent political figures of his day as well as those from the past (e.g., Thomas Jefferson).

Dr. Smith died just 19 days before the ratification of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. For all his achievements as a doctor and social justice advocate, he was never admitted to the American Medical Association. The New York Academy of Medicine accepted Dr. Smith as a Fellow in 2018, 121 years after his nomination in 2018.

Unfortunately, very few of us have heard of someone of the stature of Dr. Smith. What does it say about society today when we are not made aware of the achievements of people like Dr. Smith and others, but yet follow the daily lives of phony influencers?

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“Nay, adding a meanness which approaches atrocity, they tax the hard earnings of the colored man to support schools and build school-houses for white children, from the doors of which the poor black you are rudely driven.” – James McCune Smith

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