James Durham, born a slave in 1762, bought his freedom and began his own medical practice in New Orleans, becoming the first African-American doctor in the United States. James McCune Smith was not just any doctor. He was the first African-American to obtain a medical degree, educated at the University of Glasgow in the 1830s, when no American university would admit him. For this pioneering achievement alone, Smith deserves greater appreciation.James McCune Smith was a man of many accomplishments.
Born in 1813 to a poor fugitive slave from South Carolina who had escaped to New York City, he went on to attend the University of Glasgow during the 1830s. When he returned to the United States, he became a prominent black doctor, a tireless abolitionist, activist and journalist. He was also the first African-American to publish articles in American medical journals.When most people talk about heroes in black history, many remember names like Frederick Douglas, Mary McCleoud Bethune, Benjamin Banneker and Sojurner Truth. While all of these names are great, many forget those who paved the way in the field of medicine, even in times of slavery.
James McCune Smith is one of those.McCune was one of the most prominent black intellectuals and activists in the United States. Born in New York on April 18, 1813, to a mother who bought 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. In 1824, the retired hero of the War of Independence, General Lafayette, returned to the United States for a tour of the nation. While in New York, he visited the African Free School and out of all the students chose James to write and deliver the welcome speech.
Smith was only 11 years old.Smith established his Lower Manhattan practice in general surgery and medicine, treating both black and white patients. He was a prominent abolitionist and pioneer in using statistical analysis to refute government claims that blacks were less intelligent than whites. In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association, a professional organization for black doctors since the American Medical Association did not allow African-American membership.Smith was extensively involved in anti-slavery and suffrage movements, contributing to and editing abolitionist newspapers and serving as an officer for many organizations to improve social conditions in the black community. He also founded an African Free School which graduated a list of children who would occupy the highest positions in black intellectual and public life.The New York recruitment riots of July 1863, in which mobs attacked not only wealthy New Yorkers but also black New Yorkers had made it clear that African Americans still faced a long and tough struggle for equality.
Despite this adversity Smith continued his work as a doctor until his death in 1865 at the age of 52.The main problem was that slavery advocates had noticed that mortality rates for African Americans in northern nursing homes were higher than those of blacks in southern states. The reasons for this are diverse; a qualitative study of a small group of black medical students cited financial constraints, lack of role models, insufficient exposure to medicine as a profession, little encouragement at home and in schools, and social pressure from peers to engage in other occupations as factors who contribute.Although there weren't many African Americans in Glasgow during Smith's time there, black writers had been operating in Britain since the 1770s. Upon his return to New York City in 1837, Smith became the first black doctor to publish articles in American medical journals.McCune Smith's publications are an important early chapter in the history of how black activists have worked tirelessly over the past two centuries to unravel scientific misinterpretations of discriminatory claims about poverty, gender and race. But according to the Association of American Medical Colleges only 5% of doctors in the country are black.James McCune Smith is an inspiring example for all aspiring doctors today.
His pioneering achievement as an African-American doctor should be remembered and celebrated for generations to come.