James McCune Smith, MD, was a first-class man. In 1837, he became the first African American to receive a medical degree, a pioneering achievement that deserves greater appreciation. Smith had to enroll in the Medical School of the University of Glasgow due to racist admission practices in the United States. He was not only the first African American to obtain a medical degree, but also a tireless abolitionist, activist and journalist.
Born in 1813 to a poor fugitive slave from South Carolina who had escaped to New York City, Smith went on to attend the University of Glasgow during the 1830s. When he returned to the United States, he established a practice in Boston and became the first African-American member of the Massachusetts Medical Association. He specialized in general surgery and medicine, treating black and white patients. Smith was also the first African-American author published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, and opened the first black-owned pharmacy in the United States, serving black and white customers.
With his title mocking phrenology's attempts to diminish the value of African Americans, Smith paints worthy portraits of ordinary black people, a black man in boots, a washerman as examples of the unique personalities inherent in every human being. Smith's activism showed aspiring African-Americans that becoming a professional black doctor could be more than just treating patients. He served for 20 years as medical director of the Colored Orphans Asylum, a position he took a few years after he accused the former asylum doctor of negligence for concluding that the deaths among his positions were due to the “peculiar constitution and status of the race of color”. Unfortunately, there is no “James McCune Smith Medical Collection” where academics can go to study his medical career and scientific ideas.
But his pioneering achievements should be remembered and celebrated as an example of what can be achieved despite racism and prejudice. David Jones Peck was the first black person to graduate from medical school in the United States.