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. But it was James McCune Smith who made history by becoming 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, MD, was a man of the first. In 1837, he became the first African-American to receive a medical degree, although he had to enroll in the Medical School of the University of Glasgow due to racist admission practices at the University of Glasgow.
And that was far from his only groundbreaking achievement. He was also the first black person to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States and the first black doctor published in the U. S. UU. James McCune Smith and his Lasting Impact on Medicine and Social Justice.
Freedom, education, and access to health care were opportunities all too often beyond the reach of African Americans in 1813, when Dr. Denied by the color of his skin. But with financial support from abolitionists, Smith pursued his dream across the ocean, attending the University of Glasgow in Scotland to become a pioneer: the first African American to earn a medical degree. Smith achieved so much in his life, but not the recognition he deserved from his colleagues in the medical community. 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 those 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 died in 1865 at the age of 52, five months after the end of the Civil War and less than three weeks before the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, well aware that African Americans still faced a long and tough struggle for equality. The New York recruitment riots of July 1863, in which mobs attacked not only the city's wealthy New Yorkers but also black New Yorkers, had made that clear to him. James McCune Smith was an extraordinary man who made history by becoming not only America's first black doctor, but also one of its most influential activists and intellectuals. Born into poverty as a fugitive slave from South Carolina who had escaped to New York City with his mother's help, he went on to attend Scotland's University of Glasgow during the 1830s.
When he returned to America with his medical degree in hand, he became a prominent black doctor and tireless abolitionist. A prolific writer and lecturer refuting pseudoscientific claims of black inferiority and predicting African Americans' transformative impact on world culture., Smith was also America's first black person to publish peer-reviewed articles in medical journals. He met with other activists and conspired to end slavery in the South; win blacks' voting rights in New York; and educate black youth. He was born in Liberia but moved to America to study at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina—a historically black Christian university—where he graduated with a bachelor's degree and master's degree before obtaining his medical degree from Glasgow University five years later. Perhaps these pioneers—and others like them—will inspire future generations of black medical professionals to emulate their achievements. In 1981 Dr. Patricia Bath became America's first black neurosurgeon; just a few years later she rose to head neurosurgery at Michigan Children's Hospital.
And then there's Dr. Patricia Bath who received her medical patent for her Laserphaco probe device used for cataract surgery back in 1988. Smith served for 20 years as medical director of Colored Orphans Asylum—a position he took up after accusing its former doctor of negligence for concluding that deaths among its charges were due to “the peculiar constitution and condition” of people of color. Thanks to maritime trade it was one of America's largest cities at that time; its university's medical school was one of Europe's best. But even then some male doctors refused to take Smith's medical opinions or prescriptions seriously. After graduating several black students attended college throughout that century—and beyond—but none has yet been honored with their own “James McCune Smith” Medical Collection where academics can go to study their medical careers and scientific ideas.