James McCune Smith, MD, was a first-class man. 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 in the United States. His pioneering achievement alone deserves greater appreciation. James McCune Smith (1813-1886) was the first black American to obtain a medical degree, educated at the University of Glasgow in the 1830s when no American university would admit him.
He was also a prominent abolitionist and suffragist, compassionate physician, prolific writer and public intellectual. After returning to New York, Smith established his medical practice at 55 West Broadway, where he also opened the first black-owned pharmacy in the United States. His goal was to prepare free and enslaved blacks “so that they can become good and useful Citizens of the State, once the state grants full emancipation.” In 1840 Smith wrote the first case report of a black American doctor, entitled Case of Ptyalism With Fatal Termination. This report described a woman who developed excessive salivation, glossitis and gingivitis after taking a prescription for mercury, and who died as a result.
Despite this pioneering work in social justice for blacks, Smith's descendants saw themselves as white. 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 refuted, point by point, the claims of black inferiority made in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. In 1910, Abraham Flexner's report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recommended closing all but two historically black medical schools, despite recognizing that two universities could not train enough doctors to care for 9.8 million black people in the United States.
This decision had a lasting impact on medical education for African Americans. And even today, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 5% of doctors in the country are black. The pioneering achievements of James McCune Smith should not be forgotten. He was not only the first African-American to obtain a medical degree but also the first African-American author published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. He opened the first black-owned pharmacy in the United States, serving both black and white customers.
He challenged the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 while meeting with other black activists in his pharmacy to organize protection for fugitives. And he was an important figure in anti-slavery and suffrage movements.