James McCune Smith, an American physician, apothecary, abolitionist, and author. He is the first African-American to hold a medical degree. Born in New York on April 18, 1813, to a mother who purchased her own freedom and a father who may have been a freed slave or a white merchant, Smith attended the African Free School in New York City, where at the age of eleven he was chosen to give an address to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824.
After graduating, he applied but was denied admission to several American colleges. He then managed to raise money to attend the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where, after completing a bachelor and masters’ degree, he completed a medical degree at the top of his class in 1837. While he was there, Smith joined the Glasgow Emancipation Society, an organization that helped to fund his education.
After completing a medical internship in Paris, he returned to New York City, to a hero’s welcome from the 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.”
He would go on to opened a medical office and a pharmacy that attracted interracial clientele on West Broadway, which was 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.
Dr. Smith quickly emerged as a powerful anti-slavery and anti-racism organizer, orator, and writer. Intellectually erudite and passionate, Smith wrote prolifically about medicine, science, education, racism, and literature.
In 1852, Dr. Smith met with blacks in favor of the move to send blacks back to Africa in Albany, New York. Against the move, he persuaded them to adopt a statement urging the New York State Legislature to reject efforts to send African Americans back to Africa. Dr. Smith went as far as to challenge a member of Congress from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun after Calhoun pronounced that African Americans were prone to insanity. Smith’s response, showing the information to be false, was called, “The Influence of Climate upon Longevity.”
Dedicated to supporting black emancipation and equality in any way he could, he supported the Underground Railroad. He contributed articles to a publication called Emancipator and edited another called Colored American.
Smith also became the first black physician to publish articles in US medical journals. Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and John Brown personally collaborated with James McCune Smith in the fight for black freedom. As the learned physician-scholar of the abolition movement, Smith was instrumental in making the overthrow of slavery credible and successful.
In 1863, he moved to Ohio to accept a position as professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College. James McCune Smith died of heart disease at the age of 52 on November 17, 1865. He was survived by a wife and five children.